When Jay Inslee dropped out of the presidential race on Wednesday night, he found something that had eluded him throughout months of campaigning: national recognition.
Mr. Inslee, the Washington governor and self-described climate change candidate, struggled to stand out in the 2020 field and never managed to reach the Democratic National Committee’s polling threshold to qualify for the September debates — 2 percent support in four approved polls. But shortly after he declared on MSNBC that he was ending his campaign, Mr. Inslee, suddenly, was trending.
Virtually every other Democratic candidate tweeted their admiration for him. Former Secretary of State John Kerry thanked him for being a “strong voice” on climate change. The environmentalist Bill McKibben floated his name for interior secretary. Even The Onion gently spoofed him, imagining that he had bowed out by “transforming into a majestic oak.”
When I spoke with Mr. Inslee by phone on Thursday, a few hours after he announced he would seek a third term as governor, he was in high spirits. “On fire,” he told me. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Tell me how you made your decision finally to pull out of the race.
We made the decision because it was the right thing to do for all concerned. We had considerable success in the campaign in a variety of dimensions, and in raising substantially the climate crisis in national conversation. We had success in developing the gold standard of what I really believe is a governing document for the clean energy economy. We had success in driving candidates in what you might think of as an arms race, a good arms race.
We had late success in getting momentum, but it only started to kick into gear three weeks ago with the second debate, because that was the first chance we had to have any national impact whatsoever. There was a big response to that, 42,000 donors in three weeks. But we did not have the polling numbers that would have been necessary to move forward with the debate. We felt that was a realistic requirement to really be in the hunt to win the nomination. It was a straightforward decision at that point.
Who did I speak with? I spoke with my wife of 46 years, my campaign team. But it really was not a very difficult decision. There was great clarity at that point.
So in the end it was the numbers?
Yes. We could not meet the 2 percent. Although our momentum came, it came too late and we had to exhaust our finances generating the donors and did not have the wherewithal to communicate or increase our name ID. We never had enough resources to improve our name identification.
There’s been quite an outpouring since you dropped out. Is it hard to see all this attention now when you’ve left the race?
No. To start with zero national name recognition, it’s gratifying to hear people say these things. I’m actually more convinced than I was two days ago that the public, or at least those who were paying attention to this issue, recognize that we were able to move the ball down the field.
What do you think is the single biggest impact your campaign had on the issue of climate change?
I think the biggest is just elevating the profile of this issue. This had almost zero discussion in the last presidential race. When I started my candidacy, I focused very intensely on this. There was no plan for any climate debate by any entity, either party or networks.
Listen, I’m not the sole reason for this — there have been a lot of people that I’ve allied with. But I think if you watch the commentary, there is a general consensus that our campaign did promote the discussion in every quarter.
Actually, by the time you entered the 2020 race there was a lot of excitement about the Green New Deal and all the candidates were talking about climate change. Was it hard to distinguish yourself on your signature issue?
A victim of our success is good news. I think anyone who looks at this will conclude that our plan is the most robust and the most effective.
Are you concerned that the fact that you never broke past the 2 percent threshold means voters don’t care about climate change as much as they say they do?
I really don’t think you can draw a dark conclusion, because we never achieved a level of familiarity with voters that gave us a chance to test that hypothesis. Two out of three voters couldn’t pick me out of a lineup. There were four or five other candidates with national name ID who started out over that hurdle.
With you out of the race, who is the new climate candidate?
We want all of them to vie for that No. 1 position, and I think that’s an open question. I will be active helping any candidate that asks. I’ve already talked to a couple candidates and I hope to make sure that my team can share some viewpoints with them going forward.
Will you endorse?
I don’t have any immediate plans, but I’m not ruling it out.
If a Democrat wins, is there a cabinet position you’d want? At least one person mentioned you for interior secretary. And there seems to be a small movement on Twitter for creating a secretary of climate change position for you.
If the voters give me another chance, I intend to be governor. It’s a fantastic job. I love the state.
Will you try again to pass a carbon tax? (Washington passed landmark legislation this year requiring that the state run on 100 percent clean energy by 2045, after three failed attempts to enact a carbon tax.)
It depends a little bit on a [Washington State Supreme Court] decision that is pending. There is reason to believe we will succeed in a previous regulation I proposed.
What else do you want to do on climate and clean energy in Washington State?
We want to increase our research and development. We laid the foundation. Now we need to build the house.
Your tweet off the Onion headline was pretty funny. Was that you or your staff?
That was my wife, Trudi. But we may have a scandal brewing.
A campaign aide cut in to say there was reason to believe the illustration in The Onion was not, in fact, of an oak. The aide later confirmed via email, “He doesn’t believe it to be an oak.”