When Barack Obama issued just the third veto of his presidency on Tuesday, of a bill allowing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, Republicans were outraged, or at least pretended they were outraged. House Speaker John Boehner called it a “national embarrassment,” and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised a vote to override the veto, as doomed an effort as every other piece of legislation Republicans hope to pass in the next two years.
But maybe Obama wasn’t cruelly crushing Republicans’ hopes for the limitless economic bounty that the pipeline would bring, as it turned America into a tar-sands-fueled paradise of high wages and economic opportunity. Maybe he was actually doing them a favor.
I say that because Republicans have really gone off the deep end when it comes to the Keystone XL, and they’ll be well served to move past this issue and see if they can come up with some real economic ideas that might not only appeal to the public, but could have a chance of adding momentum to the economy.
Because if you’ve listened to them for the past couple of years, you’d think that America’s entire economic future depended on this one project. Any time a Republican politician was asked what we should do to improve the economy, the first thing that would come out of their mouth would be, “We need to build the Keystone XL pipeline.”
That’s despite the fact that even under the most optimistic assessment, Keystone would have created 42,000 temporary jobs, and as few as 35 permanent jobs maintaining it. And those 42,000 included indirect jobs created by the spending on the pipeline, in every industry anyone could think of, from apparel to entertainment.
To put it in a broader context, the U.S. economy created 3.2 million jobs in 2014, or 76 times as many as the temporary job number Keystone would have created under even the most generous accounting. If everything went well, Keystone could have increased the total number of jobs in the United States by a grand total of three one-hundredths of one percent. You can believe it was a good idea, but you can’t honestly say it would have had a meaningful impact on an economy the size of America’s.
So why did Republicans become so invested in the Keystone XL? It isn’t hard to understand. Once environmental activists seized on the pipeline as an organizing issue, one worth fighting about not only for its own sake but also as a concrete representation of climate change (which can sometimes seem like an abstract problem whose effects are mostly in the future), Republicans felt an obligation to join the battle, fire right back and say that it was absolutely vital to the nation’s economic health.
And of course, it meant supporting the fossil fuel industry, and the GOP is still the party of “Drill, baby, drill!” The longer the controversy dragged on, the more convinced Republicans became that building the pipeline was the most important thing we could do to get America back on its feet.
But now that the Keystone drama is approaching its end, Republicans are going to have to come up with a new answer to the question of what they’d like to do to improve the economy. They have their old standbys — cut taxes, reduce regulations — but those are sounding rather stale at a time when people are concerned with inequality and stagnant wages.
So perhaps now that they have no choice but to move beyond the Keystone XL, they’ll come up with some creative ideas that might actually have a real impact on Americans’ economic lives. Stranger things have happened.