anti-EPA T-shirtCome and get your EPA-hater T-shirt.Photo: ZazzleNational Journal‘s Ronald Brownstein, one of the sharpest political observers out there, has an excellent column examining the unusual party discipline House Republicans have displayed in recent votes against EPA regulations. There has been an unceasing march of such efforts, and they are not only garnering near-unanimous support from Republicans in districts Obama carried in 2008, they are getting lots of votes from Democrats in Obama districts.

This is not typical. Historically, Republicans in blue suburban areas have tread lightly around air and water issues, which consistently poll well in their districts. Brownstein reviews the record:

In 1995, newly ascendant House Republicans under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich also targeted a series of environmental regulations. But Gingrich faced growing resistance rooted in the suburbs: The number of House Republicans voting no rose from two on a measure that February to require tougher cost-benefit analysis on regulations, to 34 on legislation in May to dilute the Clean Water Act, to 63 on a measure that failed in November to constrain EPA’s enforcement.

As Brownstein says, that’s not happening today. This is his diagnosis:

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Partly, the answer is that the overall pressure for party loyalty is even greater now than it was then. Green-oriented Republicans no longer have the leadership that venerable moderates such as now-retired Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York provided. And the fossil-fuel industry is amplifying its influence inside the caucus by placing almost all of its chips on Republicans: So far in the 2012 cycle, coal and oil and gas interests have directed about 90 percent of their formidable campaign contributions toward the GOP.

To make matters worse, Republicans are convinced Obama is going to lose — 83 percent of them think so (as do 55 percent of all Americans). Even the ones in blue areas aren’t afraid of him.

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But as Brownstein says, polls show that those suburban voters still support air and water regulations, even in these grim economic times. Indeed, most Americans do. Insofar as the discussion remains at the abstract level of big government and regulations, Dems are in trouble. But if it can be made specific, about mercury in the water and smog in the air, it can help Dems highlight what to expect under Republican governance.

The elections of 2012 will be a crucial test of the Republican strategy of unified total warfare. If the House Republicans who voted for more air pollution are reelected in an anti-Obama backdraft, it will embolden them to come after EPA twice as hard next session. And if Republicans take the Senate, as appears likely, one regulatory rollback after another will reach the president’s desk. And if Mitt Romney wins the presidency …