Signs of hope in the elephant party
In a week’s time, the political climate in America will change — or so the experts tell us. Pollster Charlie Cook, the "Oracle of Washington," calls this a "wave" election, compares it to 1994, and predicts Republicans will lose "at least 20 to 35 seats, possibly more." In the L.A. Times, conservative historian Niall Ferguson compares this election to 1958. That year, a two-term Republican president found himself stuck with an unpopular war and a sluggish economy. The GOP lost 48 seats, setting the stage for a dynamic new Democratic president in 1960, and Democratic domination of the Congress for the next 20 years.
If the election goes as these pollsters predict, November 7th will be "the end of George W. Bush’s presidency as he has known it," reported the Washington Post.
Will prospects improve for environmental protection? Probably. But much will still depend on the Republican Party.
Since 1994, the Republican Party has largely turned its back on its own imperfect-but-real tradition of care and concern for clean air, clean water, wilderness, national parks, and ocean waters. It’s easy to forget, but Republican representatives once believed in voting for the health and preservation of the planet.
In 1964, the Wilderness Act passed by 73-12 in the Senate, and by 373-1 in the House. The Endangered Species Act passed Congress in 1973 on a nearly unanimous vote. In 1989, during a shockingly hot summer in Washington, D.C., the Senate held hearings on climate change, which featured James Hansen (now something of a movie star). Later a Republican president named Ronald Reagan authorized the creation of a new federal funding organization, the U.S. Global Change Research Program. This executive order was confirmed by H.W. Bush and codified by the Democratic Congress in 1990. The USGCRP has since spent billions on atmospheric research on the threat of climate change.
Contrast this past concern for the natural world with the Rovian GOP of today. Featured in the House is an Orwellian nightmare named Richard Pombo, who claims to want to protect the Endangered Species Act even as he guts it, attempts to sell off national parks to corporate givers, and calls for drilling along coasts and in wilderness. (Pombo pushed his anti-ESA bill through the House, but it stalled in the Senate, thanks in part due to opposition from moderate Republicans.)
But there’s hope. Pombo and his type of money-grubbing anti-environmentalism turn out to be appalling to Republicans, too. Or so I gather from Jim DiPeso, who helps lead the Republicans for Environmental Protection. During an email interview, without any prompting, he said:
Theodore Roosevelt is on Mount Rushmore. Richard Pombo is not and never will be.
DiPeso is the REP’s policy director. He insists that most Republicans do care about clean air and water, wilderness, wild creatures, and the climate, and will vote to protect the environment. I found his faith heartening, if not always easy to believe:
KS: Once upon a time, one of the greatest of all Republicans, Teddy Roosevelt, camped out in Yosemite with one of the greatest of all enviros, the co-founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir. Can you imagine such warm relations between the Republican Party and the Sierra Club being re-established in the 21st century?
JD: The 21st century has a lot of life left in it, so yes, I can imagine conservationists and Republicans finding a way to achieve a constructive sense of common purpose well before January 1, 2101.
I would like to see all presidents, Republicans and Democrats, engage Americans on the importance of our public lands heritage by reprising TR’s 1903 tour of our country’s great natural treasures about once or twice in each presidential term. I don’t mean parachuting in for quick photo ops during election campaigns. I mean getting away from the craziness in DC for a week at a time, experiencing the outdoors, and sharing his or her impressions with the public. Hike the Adirondacks, canoe the Boundary Waters, cast a fly into the Penobscot, pitch a tent in the Sierra Nevada, chase game on the Rocky Mountain Front. Experience the land as a wellspring of patriotism and bring a renewed sense of moral purpose to public service.
Take a few conservationists and reporters along for the trips — but not too many so the expeditions become mob scenes. The public would love it, conservation would get a boost, and the president would have a head-clearing experience that would do him or her a world of good once back in the Oval Office.
KS: Republican Teddy Roosevelt became hugely concerned with protecting our natural heritage, and saved enormous chunks of American wilderness in national parks. But that was about 100 years ago. Would you agree that in the 21st century, it’s not just a matter of conserving wild lands, it’s a matter of conserving entire ecosystems, and the climate?
JD: Of course. A century ago, we had only a sketchy understanding of ecology and conservation biology, and the ability of man to alter the global climate system was only dimly perceived by a few curious scientists.
Were he alive today, however, I believe that Theodore Roosevelt — naturalist, historian, and outdoorsman par excellence — would have little difficulty grasping the consequences of tampering with the climate and unraveling ecosystems. He would mourn the loss of wildlife that have never been discovered or identified. He would see how the urgent necessity for action would fit into his visionary political philosophy that identified conservation as the present generation’s fundamental duty to future generations. As he wrote, "the greatest good for the greatest number applies to the number within the womb of time."
And were he alive today, he would tell you to call him Theodore, or Colonel if you please, not Teddy, a nickname that he did not like. ;)
KS: Your group was launched in 1995. Was there a specific precipitating moment?
JD: The precipitating events were the radical actions of the 104th Congress in 1995. In the 1994 election, people voted Republicans into the majority because the Democrats had been in power too long and were not responsive to public concerns about the size of government, tax burdens, kitchen table issues, and ethical lapses in Washington, DC.
Voters, however, did not support a Republican majority for the purpose of gutting environmental and conservation laws that have a Republican pedigree and have long enjoyed wide bipartisan support, such as national parks and the Clean Air Act. Yet that is what radicals in the 104th Congress set out to do. REP’s founders looked on with dismay and decided that there was a need to organize Republican conservationists and restore the party’s conservation tradition.
The founding moment was a wildlife conservation conference in spring 1995 at the National 4-H Conference Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland. That’s where REP’s three founding mothers got acquainted and had the eureka moment that led to REP’s founding shortly thereafter.
KS: Does it ever feel to you that Republican environmentalists are a rare breed, perhaps an endangered species?
JD: It can feel that way if people take all their cues from confrontational media, especially the talk radio gasbags who demonstrate little knowledge or understanding of the traditional conservative ethic articulated by thinkers such as Edmund Burke and acted on by Theodore Roosevelt.
However, I am convinced that right-of-center voters will respond to a thoughtful case for environmental protection that is presented in terms that resonate with their values. I believe there is a hunger for a positive environmental vision that can engage people across the spectrum. On Friday, Oct. 27, for example, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, published in the conservative heart of the Intermountain West, published the latest in a series of editorials calling for Republicans to rediscover TR’s ethic and recognize “both the moral imperative and the political value in supporting conservation issues.”
KS: If I imagine a field guide to Republican enviros, I can think of three species. I think of outdoorspeople — anglers, hunters, birders, hikers, mountain climbers — who love the wild, and by a substantial majority see them threatened by climate change, exploitation, and neglect, as reported in a recent poll. I think of canny businesspeople, such as Paul Anderson of Duke Energy, who see the challenge of global warming, but also see its commercial possibilities. And I see devout Christians such as Richard Cizik, who take the Biblical call to be caretakers of the God’s green earth seriously. Does that sound like a fair representation? What species of Republican am I overlooking?
JD: The three that you mentioned are critically important elements of the Republican conservation constituency. I would add a fourth: parents in metropolitan areas, especially in the suburbs, who want to live in clean, quiet communities, want a high quality of life for their families, and are willing to pay for it. If you look at the results of elections for conservation-oriented ballot measures over the past several election cycles, you’ll see tax and bond measures dedicated to land protection passing by large margins in even the most conservative areas.
One thing we’ve noticed at REP is that we tend to attract young fathers as members. They remember growing up when the country was less crowded and they recall great family bonding experiences camping and hiking in the outdoors. These young dads want the same experiences for their sons and daughters.
KS: A recent REP op-ed included a question that has bothered me for years: "Who can say that conservation is not conservative?" So let me ask: When you talk about this with Republican friends and allies, does this fundamental idea resonate?
JD: Conservatism as it is commonly understood is a political breed that, in many ways, is a radical departure from the conservative intellectual tradition that is a touchstone of REP’s thinking on environmental matters.
That older form of conservatism, developed by philosophers such as Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, embraced continuity, community, customs rooted in ancient wisdom traditions, and moral obligations to our neighbors and to unborn generations. In his recent book Crunchy Cons, conservative author and commentator Rod Dreher wrote: "small, local, old and particular are almost always better than big, global, new and abstract."
Burke described society as an intergenerational contract among past, present, and future. Today’s generation has an obligation to hand off to the future the societal inheritance it inherited from the past. In today’s context, that must include functioning natural systems that purify air and water, dispose of waste, pollinate food crops, and keep the climate stable.
"Burkean" conservatism frowns on waste, avarice, and materialistic hedonism, and does not give unquestioning fealty to all business activities. Or, as Herbert Hoover said more pithily: "The only trouble with capitalism is capitalists. They are too damn greedy."
Such concepts can be difficult to get across in 30-second bites because they come from a recessive gene on the conservative DNA strand. The mutation of conservatism into a form that uncritically celebrates consumption and corporatism has obscured these earlier ideas.
Today’s coarse, hurry-up media culture does not help matters. Political discourse in the United States too easily falls into narrow boxes that oversimplify issues with facile slogans and caricatures, which fail to reflect the considerable complexity of public policy issues and the range of beliefs that individuals may hold on humanity’s interactions with the natural world. When oversimplifications are used as a kind of shorthand language to express — and manipulate — political debate, it becomes all too easy for the discourse to calcify around trite stereotypes and political correctness that obscure and confuse rather than enlighten.
So, we run into Democrats who scoff at the idea that conservatives care about the environment, and we run into Republicans who are leery of all things "environmental."
While it can be difficult to break through those notional barriers at first, receptivity to the idea that "conservation is conservative" can take hold through give-and-take discussion where political values and environmental science can be explored in-depth. Those are opportunities to talk about the older form of conservatism, which Dreher gave fresh exposition to in his book. I heartily recommend his book to readers on all points of the political spectrum. For a briefer taste of this line of thinking, REP has a Conservative Quotes feature on its web site, where you can read conservatives’ remarks on the environment that people on both sides of the ideological divide may find jarring.
KS: I gather from op-eds written by REP members that you want to see Republicans acting to conserve wild lands, protect clean air and clean water, and curbing emissions of greenhouse gases. Are there Republicans who fit this bill today in Washington, and if so, who are they?
JD: Senator John McCain has been a champion of capping and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. McCain, for example, has provided exemplary leadership on a profound issue that will shape the course of human civilization for decades and possibly centuries to come. We are confident that McCain will continue pressing for greenhouse gas emissions reductions regardless of what the future holds for him in politics, whether he remains in the Senate or moves to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
When McCain ran for president in 2000, a few of REP’s national leaders met briefly with McCain at the Phoenix airport. Upon entering the meeting room, the first words out of his mouth were questions about climate change — why were people so concerned about it and how should he respond? We helped him the best we could with information and recommended policies. After 2000, he took on the issue as his own, holding real hearings with real scientists, seeing the impacts of a warming world for himself, then working with Senator Lieberman to draft the Climate Stewardship Act.
Other Republican senators have been outspoken on the need for a rational climate policy. Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine have pressed for action, as has Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island (fingers crossed tightly for his re-election in two weeks). Senator Snowe co-chaired an international group of parliamentarians and scientists that recommended strong actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Other GOP senators are coming around. After visiting Alaska with McCain to see the impacts of global warming firsthand, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina came away convinced that human-caused global warming is real. Graham is a Southern conservative who holds the Senate seat held for so long by Strom Thurmond.
The House has numerous Republicans who have supported legislation to expand energy efficiency and renewable energy development, strengthen air and water quality protections, designate more wilderness areas, and safeguard fish and wildlife. They include New Yorker Sherwood Boehlert (whom we will sorely miss when he retires from Congress at the end of this year); Nancy Johnson, Chris Shays, and Rob Simmons of Connecticut; and New Jersey’s Jim Saxton, Frank LoBiondo, Chris Smith, Mike Ferguson, and Rod Frelinghuysen. Also, we rely on Mark Kirk and Tim Johnson of Illinois, Pennsylvania’s Mike Fitzpatrick and Jim Gerlach, Minnesota’s Jim Ramstad, Maryland’s Wayne Gilchrest, and Michigan’s Vern Ehlers.
Emerging leaders in the South and West include Bob Inglis of South Carolina, a champion of clean energy, and Washington’s Dave Reichert, a strong supporter of parks and wilderness.
One of the more interesting of our green Republicans in the House is Maryland’s Roscoe Bartlett. He has taken on a Paul Revere role of warning anyone who will listen about the risks of peak oil and the growing danger of our country’s oil addiction.
KS: I have heard from a liberal activist that probably more than a majority of the Congress is ready to support a measure to control emissions of greenhouse gases, but it’s unlikely the two parties will be able to agree on anything until President Bush is out of office. Would you agree?
JD: Cracks in the wall of indifference and denial are starting to show in Congress, especially in the Senate. As I mentioned above, McCain’s evangelism on this issue has caused Lindsey Graham to come around on the reality of global warming. Both he and Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee have put their names to legislation that would cap carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Senator Pete Domenici, the powerful New Mexico Republican who chairs the Energy & Natural Resources Committee, has accepted the view that climate legislation is now necessary.
The House has been a more difficult nut to crack, but I am hoping that utility CEOs and other business leaders seeking regulatory certainty will drive home the point that the federal government has to get into the climate game sooner rather than later.
It’s difficult to say what President Bush would do if the 110th Congress were to present him with a bill along the lines of McCain-Lieberman. Right now, I’d say the odds are against him supporting such legislation, but business pressure for both regulatory certainty and expansion of cleaner energy technology markets might be persuasive, as would a political calculation to swipe an issue from the Democrats as the 2008 slugfest draws near. You can’t rule out Bush making a dramatic gesture for his legacy, akin to his establishment of the world’s largest marine reserve earlier this year.
What I can say with confidence is that if John McCain is sitting behind the big desk on January 20, 2009, the odds for passing a climate bill will go up meteorically.
KS: In your discussion of climate change, you list recommendations such as increasing fuel mileage in cars, plugging Federal installations into clean energy, and leveling the Clean Air Act by eliminating the grandfather exemption for old coal plants. All these ideas sound good to me, but not necessarily distinguishable from expert opinions or Democratic ideas. Are there specifically Republican solutions you are bringing forward that I am not noticing?
JD: The distinction is how we fit these proposals into the framework of traditional conservative thinking about moral obligations to conscience, community, and to the future. As Pope John Paul II wrote in an encyclical: "Man thinks that he can make arbitrary use of the earth, subjecting it without restraint to his will, as though it did not have its own requisites and a prior God-given purpose, which man can indeed develop but must not betray."
Air pollution imposes harm on individuals without their permission, an irresponsible act that is an affront to human dignity. Wasting energy and destroying habitat squanders the natural resources that we are obligated to use with care. Traditional conservatism places great stock in freedom coupled with responsibility. Where individuals do not behave responsibly, and confuse freedom with libertinism that harms others, the community has the right, no, the obligation, to step in and set matters straight.
We believe that where possible, policies that encourage business innovation, avoid overly prescriptive requirements that stifle creativity, and encourage responsible behavior should be adopted. The cap-and-trade provisions of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments and cooperative approaches to resource stewardship that are taking place in a number of national forests are good examples of what we would support.
Ultimately, we believe that caring for the environment can be justified by appeals to both liberal/progressive and conservative traditions. Protecting and restoring the great natural endowment that underpins human existence and human culture must transcend political boundary lines if humanity is to have a peaceful, prosperous future.
KS: On your website, it’s said that a majority of Republicans share your views on the need for environmental protection. But when I look at the REP Scoreboard, I see a handful of Republican members with decent-to-good scores (such as McCain, 63), and a clear majority of Republican Congressmen and Senators with terrible scores, some of them below zero (such as Pombo, -12). Doesn’t this show that most Republicans do not value environmental protection?
JD: What the scores show is how the public is ill-served by an increasingly dysfunctional Congress that pays way too much attention to the narrow agendas of special interests that fund campaigns.
More broadly, it’s important to note that Congress, especially the House, is far more driven by partisan considerations than the average voter is. Over the past 20 or 30 years, the environment has become a political football as a result of sociopolitical changes in the environmental movement, tactical alliances that environmentalists made with Democrats eagerly willing to be seen as cornering the market on environmental virtue, and Republicans responding by assuming that they had nothing to gain by supporting environmental causes. In the “us against them” cauldron on Capitol Hill, the result has been an unfortunate partisan divide that REP is convinced does not accurately reflect public sentiment.
Take a look at David Brooks’ column in the Oct. 22nd NYTimes. Brooks, a conservative, eloquently took Republican leaders and their talk radio enablers to task for obsessive dogmatism that has alienated suburban office park dads and moms who could be a potent Republican constituency. Brooks wrote: “The people in these offices manage information for a living, and when they see Republicans denying obvious trends, or shutting out relevant data, they say to themselves, ‘Those people are not like me.'”
Republican leaders can continue down the path of “us against them” ideological zealotry and continue scaring off potential supporters. Or, they can rediscover a more hopeful, inclusive, and practical ethic on public policy issues, including environmental protection, and find their way back to being the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt again.