Pollution, Politics, and the GOP

By DAVID JENKINS, REP’s vice president for government and political affairs

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: Dave delivered this speech at the Society of Environmental Journalists converence in Miami, Florida, on October 21, 2011.


Before I give my take on the anti-environment binge that many Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates are currently on, I first want to point out that there is nothing “conservative” about it.

Anyone who studies conservatism should know that stewardship is a fundamental conservative idea.

In fact, stewardship is the glue that holds the other tenets of conservatism together.

You will find the theme of stewardship and our responsibility to future generations in the words of great conservative minds like Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver. You will find it in the speeches of Republican Presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

Conservatives throughout history have emphasized the importance of environmental protection.

Margaret Thatcher put it well when she said:

“We must remember our duty to Nature before it is too late. That duty is constant. It is never completed. It lives on as we breathe…It will weigh on our shoulders for as long as we wish to dwell on a living and thriving planet, and hand it on to our children and theirs.”

Barry Goldwater, Mr. Conservative himself, put it more bluntly when he wrote:

“While I am a great believer in the free enterprise system and all that it entails, I am an even stronger believer in the right our people to live in a clean and pollution-free environment.”

So, it is quite frustrating to see anti-environment positions constantly portrayed in the media as “conservative.” They are not. If anything, they are liberal, representing a short-sighted, live-for-today mentality.

Those positions most often stem from a mixture of special interest politics, hyper-partisanship—where ideas get demonized based on who embraces them, and the prevalence of radical libertarian views within a segment of the Republican Party.

By labeling anti-environment policies “conservative,” the media not only gets it wrong, it contributes to the political polarization of environmental issues. Additionally, an odd mixture of partisanship and timidity in media coverage today is also resulting in more voter confusion by making it harder for them to separate fact from fiction.

If you will look at those in Congress, Republican or Democrat, who are most often on the attack against environmental regulations, it is lawmakers who are from states with heavy fossil fuel interests, or Western libertarian-types who resent federal management of public lands.

One unique thing about this current anti-environment campaign that House Republican leaders are spearheading is that centrist Republicans have been reluctant to break with leadership on many of these bad environmental votes.

The excuse I most often hear is that the member is nervous about casting any vote that might increase the risk of getting a Tea Party-type primary challenger. The oddities of the 2010 election cycle have made them worry more about the GOP primary than the general election.

With both parties desperately trying to differentiate themselves from each other on the economy, Republican leaders are gambling that they can sell voters on the notion that environmental regulations are a big drag on the economy.

I think this strategy will backfire. First, there is no evidence of such a correlation. Landmark environmental laws like the Clean Air Act have been around for four decades, through multiple periods of boom and bust.

Second, and most importantly, it does not reflect the values of most voters—including Republican voters.

Polling shows that the hard core, anti-government libertarian types who tend to oppose environmental safeguards represent somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of Republican voters. It is a vocal and active 15 to 20 percent, but even so, that only takes you so far in a general election.

There has been much polling over the years showing that a majority of Republican voters support strong environmental protections.

In a poll conducted last year for REP, 86 percent of self-identified conservatives said they believe that conserving natural resources and environmental stewardship are conservative values.

A poll announced just last week by CERES, and conducted jointly by Republican and Democrat polling firms, found that 58 percent of Republicans oppose Congressional efforts to stop EPA from enacting new limits on air pollution from power plants, as do 85 percent of independents.

A poll released in advance of a key Endangered Species Act vote this summer showed 73 percent of Republican voters support the ESA. On that vote, we did see 37 House Republicans break ranks to defend the act.

Some polling does indicate that many Americans currently feel there is too much regulation on business, but that view does not seem to translate into opposition to specific environmental laws.

Even though the environment is not the top concern for most voters right now, clean air, clean water, and quality interaction with the natural environment are expected by most Americans, regardless of their political stripes.

Greg Strimple, the Republican pollster who helped with the CERES poll, nicely articulated the political risks for Republicans in opposing air quality rules. He said:

“I advise my political candidates that you need to find issues that unite the Republican Party with the center of the electorate and divide Democrats, and this issue does the opposite. This issue unites the center of the electorate with the left side of Democrats and divides Republicans.”

Simply saying no to environmental safeguards is a losing proposition.

Republicans would be far wiser to embrace the strong stewardship ethic that is inherent in traditional conservatism. They can do that—and still differentiate themselves from Democrats—by thoughtfully conserving natural resources and offering traditionally conservative solutions to today’s environmental problems.