Beyond Party and Faction

By DAVID JENKINS, REP’s government affairs director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Dave delivered this statement at the Sierra Club’s National Political Training Conference in Silver Spring, Maryland, on October 13, 2007.


Good afternoon.

Republicans for Environmental Protection. To some of you that may sound like an oxymoron, but it is not.

Our organization, as its name suggests, is dedicated to improving the environmental performance of the Republican Party, and of Republican elected officials, and as I am sure you all know, there is quite a bit of work to be done.

So, what does REP’s mission have to do with the political activities of the Sierra Club? I firmly believe that our mission is also a critical component of your mission.

I am going to read a quote, and I’m curious if anyone can tell me who said it.

“Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country.”

It was President Richard Nixon who said that.

Nixon recognized that the public was fed up with pollution and he saw the environment as a way to unite the public and stay on the right side of history. Of course, he still managed to end up on the wrong side of history—albeit for other reasons.

But Nixon was definitely on to something with that quote. The effective stewardship of our environment requires consistent, long-term progress. This is especially true regarding climate change. We simply cannot afford to have the quality of our environment held hostage to ever-shifting political winds.

Taking two steps forward doesn’t do a lot of good if it is followed with three steps backwards.

This is why we must all strive to make the politics of environmental protection less polarized.

The notion that conservation and protecting our environment are “liberal” causes—and that the environmental community is little more than an extension of the Democratic National Committee—is a persistent view that is hard to dispel.

Partisans from both ends of the ideological spectrum have contributed to the polarization of environmental issues.

In order to help change this perception, REP has cultivated a membership that consists of both the conservative and the moderate elements of our party. We have made this work with a strict policy of requiring folks to check all of their other political baggage at the door.

For members of both REP and Sierra Club, our purpose is to advance the cause of environmental stewardship. If any of us allow our personal views on other issues, or how we plan to vote on Election Day, to influence our organizational decision-making, we are doing a great disservice to that cause.

Candidate endorsement decisions are particularly vulnerable to the influence of partisan biases. This is where people often have the hardest time separating personal political views from the decisions they need to make in support of their organization’s mission.
So my advice on improvement is to place a very high priority—in everything you do—on making environmental protection a “cause beyond party and beyond factions.”

I also want to offer a few thoughts on why this is particularly important right now.

In recent years, when Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress, our calls for a greener GOP had limited resonance within the party. It mostly appealed to moderates who were already inclined toward responsible environmental policies.

The party establishment had found a recipe for victory and it was not interested in listening to voices promoting change.

The 2006 election changed that.

We are seeing significantly more interest in our “conservation is conservative” message by party officials and by candidates.

I think this presents a real opportunity for the environmental movement. The American public has a limited threshold of tolerance for environmental risks and degradation. This threshold was clearly reached in the 1970s and resulted in the bipartisan passage of numerous landmark environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and NEPA.

I think that threshold is being reached again with voter concern rising about strained energy supplies and climate change. Add to that the consequences of unchecked sprawl, worsening pollution, and lax consumer protection, and you get a frustrated electorate.

This frustration is clearly evident in Republican voter attitudes. Here are some recent polling numbers for Republican voters:

  • 81 percent think the United States should take action to reduce carbon dioxide coming from cars, factories and power plants.
  • 76 percent support setting higher emissions standards for business and industry.
  • 74 percent support more strongly enforcing federal environmental regulations.
  • 60 percent favor raising mileage for automobiles and SUVs to 40 miles per gallon over the next 10 years.

The GOP need for change is deeper than trying to appeal to swing voters. Today, rank and file Republicans are clearly in a different place on environmental issues than the party elite has assumed.

You’ve heard of the Gingrich Revolution. Well, today we are seeing the Gingrich Revelation. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has acknowledged that climate change is being largely caused by humans, and he has a new book out promoting green conservatism. Although you may find the title a bit scary… it’s A Contract with the Earth.

We have the best opportunity in decades to make protecting the environment a bipartisan issue, to secure sustained, long-term progress in addressing our environmental challenges, and to leave polarizing figures like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter powerless to challenge us.

So, I urge you to consider this opportunity as you work with candidates and make your endorsement decisions for 2008.

Sometimes that might mean you need to be a bit more flexible in how you assess environmental scorecard numbers and questionnaire answers.

It hurts our cause when a Republican elected official, who has had to buck party leaders, endure verbal assaults, and sometimes get denied leadership opportunities, to vote our way on environmental issues, then sees his or her opponent endorsed by environmental groups due to partisan biases or a minor difference in their environmental scores.

Those stories feed the forces who seek to polarize environmental issues. They give the Rush Limbaughs of the world credibility that they do not deserve.

You also have to separate those who are entrenched opponents, from those who simply may say the wrong things due to a lack of exposure to our arguments.

Take Congressman Dave Reichert from Washington’s 8th district for example. REP recognized his potential, has consistently supported him, and has worked hard to educate him on environmental issues. On our 2005 scorecard, he scored 46. On our 2006 scorecard, he scored 75. And so far this year, he is batting 1.000, voting our way on every single vote. I call that progress.

And two weeks ago, Reichert had an op-ed published in The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, entitled “Republicans Should Embrace Environmentalism.”

Conservative political theorist Russell Kirk, who is credited with renewing conservatism’s intellectual respectability in the mid 20th century, pointed out that “nothing is more conservative than conservation.”

He also said this:

“The issue of environmental quality is one which transcends traditional political boundaries. It is a cause which can attract, and very sincerely, liberals, conservatives, radicals, reactionaries, freaks, and middle-class straights.”

It is up to us to make sure it does.

Thank you.