When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared before the Environmental Protection Agency's listening session on regulating coal plants Thursday, he had two options. Option one: Lay out the conditions that would make new rules easiest for the coal and utility sectors to swallow, and use his authority to nudge the EPA in that direction.
McConnell chose option two: Demonize the agency and obstruct what it's trying to do, while offering nothing in the way of alternatives. The performance was a microcosm of the Republican strategy on coal -- and evidence the party has learned nothing from its losing fight against the Affordable Care Act.
Here's the playbook for coal, as it was for Obamacare. First, pretend there's no problem. Just as Republicans were content for decades to ignore the millions of Americans without health insurance, the party resists the idea that the climate is changing, or that humans are to blame.
Second, issue dire warnings about the consequences of Democrats' proposals. Republicans threw every argument imaginable at Obamacare, saying it would bankrupt the government, tank the economy, violate the Constitution, ruin Medicare, crush the medical profession, put the government in the examination room with you and kill your grandmother. Likewise, McConnell intimated that EPA rules on existing coal plants will ruin the economy, drive away industry and plunge the country into darkness.
Third, offer no alternatives. Republicans largely ignored the second half of their "repeal and replace" pledge on Obamacare, failing to present a better way to reach the same end -- in this case, extending health insurance to a similar number of people. Republicans have been just as reluctant to offer their own approach to cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, after abandoning cap-and-trade to Democrats.
That Republicans would run the same play twice isn’t surprising by itself. What makes it unusual is that this strategy already failed for Obamacare: Most people could see there was a problem; the dire warnings didn't sway independent voters in last year's election; and by offering no meaningful alternatives, Republicans made it easier for Democrats to shut them out of the process.
The inability of Republicans to offer new ideas has been well documented by my colleague Francis Wilkinson, who suggested the party take some time after the debt-ceiling imbroglio to dwell on the ineffectiveness of its approach. The persistence of the "war on coal" mantra, and the emptiness behind it, suggests that it hasn't.
(Christopher Flavelle is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)