Being a Moderate

By REP. SHERWOOD BOEHLERT (R, NY), a member of REP’s Honorary Board

Congressman Sherwood Boehlert

Congressman Sherwood Boehlert

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: This was Congressman Boehlert’s keynote speech at REP’s annual converence in San Diego on September 13, 2003 and also the lead article in the winter 2003 issue of REP’s The Green Elephant newsletter.

It’s a pleasure to be here with you this evening. Still, I have to say, I hope that someday I won’t have to travel so far to be with so large a group of like-minded Republicans. The very existence of Republicans for Environmental Protection should make that more likely.

And this is a long way to travel for a weekend, especially when travel doesn’t provide all the opportunities it once did. To take just one example, coming this far used to mean that I could make deprecating jokes about the bizarre and unexpected turns politics often takes “inside the Beltway.” It was easy to get a laugh, contrasting that with the relative calm and sanity that prevailed wherever I was speaking. Somehow, California right now doesn’t afford me that opportunity.

But even the current gubernatorial melee in California can’t make one feel too good about the political situation in Washington when it comes to the environment. For far too long in Washington, environmental issues have provoked ideological warfare, which has resulted in political stalemate, at best—and this is especially true in the Congress.

What is desperately needed—and what I hope REP will increasingly provide—is a voice of reason and moderation, a voice that will allow Republicans to lead the United States into a new bipartisan era of sensible environmental progress.

Now, take it from me, being a moderate is often a thankless task. Just labeling oneself a moderate can often prompt a modicum of ridicule.

Senator Eugene McCarthy once said that a moderate is someone who sees someone flailing in water twelve feet from shore, throws him six feet of rope and tells him he’s met him half way.

It’s a great line, but it actually describes exactly what moderates don’t do. Moderates find workable solutions to solve real problems. If twelve feet of rope are what’s called for, then that’s what we try to provide. It’s the ideologues who stand at the shore with their pre-cut pieces of rope, unwilling to adjust to the crisis laid out before them. Or, nowadays, the ideologues may stand at the shore so engrossed in argument that they don’t even notice that anyone is drowning.

Being a moderate doesn’t mean splitting the difference; it means solving the problem. And that’s a lot harder work than dividing by two.

But the nature of politics today does not lead people to search for the middle ground; rather the people are driven to ideological corners where they talk unproductively to themselves and posit dangerous false dichotomies.

Thus we’re told, we can either prevent forest fires or we can allow legal challenges to logging, but not both. We’re told we can have a healthy economy, or we can take serious steps to ward off climate change, but not both. We’re told we can have a thriving domestic auto industry, or we can have fuel efficiency, but not both. We’re told we can have economic development, or we can preserve wetlands, but not both. The list of false choices goes on and on.

That is not to say that environmental policy doesn’t require making tough choices and difficult tradeoffs. It does, but they ought to be real, nuts-and-bolts choices, not the strawmen that are lined up by the ideologues to scare off any probing thought.

In this polarized atmosphere, even a mildly ambitious proposal can find itself gasping for breath. The problem is clearly illustrated by the Administration’s Clear Skies proposal. The Administration deserves credit for advancing a proposal to make statutory changes in the Clean Air Act. But no one in Congress has much of an inclination to touch it. Conservatives and liberals each fear that the other camp will hijack the proposal. They’d each rather take their chances with the current system—a system that requires endless administrative procedures and expensive litigation by all parties.

Now, the Clear Skies proposal is neither the environmental panacea presented by the Administration nor the heartless rollback claimed by some environmentalists. It’s a proposal that would restructure clean air policy to provide greater certainty, and it would allow market forces to lower the costs of reducing emissions.

But from an environmental standpoint, the proposal does need to be strengthened considerably. The bill should require deeper cuts in the three pollutants it aims to control, and it should be expanded to add mandatory controls on carbon dioxide emissions to address climate change. In a healthy political climate, discussions over those changes would be underway. But in contemporary Washington, no one has budged. Even a bloc of powerful utilities that backs compromise has been unable to get the ball rolling.

So, as Lenin once famously asked, “What is to be done?” And I mention Lenin advisedly, because to succeed, moderates must build a political movement, and we must use the tools of political movements (albeit not many of Lenin’s tools). We are no less a movement for issuing a call for political antagonists to put down their arms rather than to bear them.

Perhaps the first and most important task before us is to become a ready and effective source of reliable information on environmental issues. We will never break the environmental logjam without shutting down the propaganda mills of the right and left. And to do that, we must, paradoxically, drown out, with quiet reason, the shrill voices that define the current environmental debate.

This is no mean task in an age of polemics, but it is a vital one. I’ve recently had a chance to see up-close just how persistent and pernicious ideological efforts to cloud the debate can be.

Here’s what I’ve had to deal with. Within hours of the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia, conservative websites started posting allegations that the Columbia was destroyed by environmental regulations. How could that be? Well, the argument was that foam had fallen off the shuttle because it had been reformulated to remove CFCs, the ozone-destroying chemicals that were banned internationally by a treaty known as the Montreal Protocol. That treaty, by the way, was signed by Ronald Reagan—not exactly a radical environmentalist—and the regulations to enforce the treaty were issued under the first President Bush.

The story was picked up briefly by the mainstream press, and I contacted NASA to investigate the facts. It turned out that the story was off-base. I won’t get into all the details here, but the main point to know is that the particular piece of foam that destroyed the Columbia had never been reformulated; it was made with the same type of CFCs that had been used on the very first Shuttle.

In short, environmental regulations had absolutely nothing to do with the loss of the shuttle.

Knowing how quickly misinformation about the foam could escalate into a cause celebre, I asked NASA to write me a letter providing the facts about the foam. I then distributed the letter to a few key conservative Members of the House and Senate. The press also looked into the story. Within a week or so of the accident last February, the story had died in the mainstream press and was no longer being brought up in the Congress.

But that did not turn out to be the end of it. The story kept circulating on conservative websites and broke back into the open again in August when Insight magazine, a Washington Times publication widely distributed in Washington, had a cover story headlined “Radical Environmental Laws: Did They Kill 14 Astronauts?” Believe me, you would not know from the article that the answer is “absolutely not.” We’re still trying to get that story corrected, but I’m sure it’s already planted the idea with some voters that brave astronauts were killed by pointless environmental laws.

Now, irresponsible journalism is as old as journalism itself, and in the Internet Age, it’s even harder to control the spread of groundless allegations. But that’s a reason to redouble our efforts to disseminate solid facts, not a reason to throw up our hands. Facts, the saying goes, are stubborn things, but that’s only true if we’re stubborn in presenting them.

So one of the most important tasks for REP has to be to spread the word—not just about your ideas, but about the facts on which they’re built. Writing op-eds, speaking to civic groups, and working with school groups—these sorts of things aren’t peripheral activities; they are central to what you’re about. It is dangerous for an individual or a group to believe that it alone has the right ideas, but it’s essential to be the ones with the right information.

Of course, you have to be more than just a source of accurate information, you have to have a program, too. In today’s divisive atmosphere, it’s easy to become known simply for what you oppose. A key to moderate success has to be coming up with real, practical solutions that appeal to actual people. Quite rightly, you’ve called yourselves the Republicans for Environmental Protection, not the Republicans Against Extremism, or something like that. If the public has the chance, it will pick a pragmatic optimism over ideological rigidity every time.

There’s more, certainly, to building a successful movement than what I’ve just outlined, but if you’re here tonight, you’ve already committed yourself to taking many of those additional steps. A movement requires grassroots efforts—efforts to spread the word, to register voters, and just as importantly to get them to the polls, especially in primary elections. And today, even if the campaign finance law is upheld by the Supreme Court, it takes money, and lots of it, to forge a movement. So I deeply appreciate the commitment all of you are making.

So far, I’ve mentioned the relatively tangible aspects of creating a movement, but the intangibles are just as important.

Creating a movement requires doggedness, perseverance, backbone —and faith. There is no question that, as of now, people like us represent a minority within the majority party—at least at the top, and the task before us is daunting.

But it is no more daunting than the task the Goldwater Republicans who now dominate our party faced in the mid-1960s. And it’s no more daunting than the task the Teddy Roosevelt progressives faced at the turn of the last century. We need to model ourselves on TR not only in being inspired by his ideas and attitudes, but by his willingness to engage continually in the public arena.

I feel comfortable giving this (perhaps unsolicited) advice to you tonight because our work is inextricably linked. To put it bluntly, the future of people like me depends on the future of people like you. The moderate wing of the Republican party needs the resurgent energy of REP America if we are to thrive.

So I urge you to use immoderate means in support of our moderate goals. Please continue to be immoderate in your dedication, in your drive, in your efforts to build an organization. You have already accomplished much.

And I think I can safely speak on behalf of all of us who do labor inside the Beltway for environmental protection, when I say, “We salute you, we marvel at your work, and we depend on your continuing commitment.”

Thank you.

In 2003, Republicans for Environmental Protection was extremely proud of the fact that Congressman Sherwood Boehlert, a member of our Honorary Board and one of our greatest heroes in the U.S. Congress, accepted our invitation to speak at REP’s annual conference, its third Republican Environmental Summit, in San Diego.

At the time, he was in his eleventh term as the representative of New York’s 24th District and serving as Chairman of the House Science Committee.

Universally recognized as the leading Republican environmentalist in the House, he was known for his heroic efforts to protect America’s air and water and public lands, craft a more responsible energy policy, and reform the nation’s Superfund and brownfield policies. Dubbed “The Green Hornet” by National Journal, Congressman Boehert received REP’s top award at its 2003 year’s conference.