March 29, 2005


Green Opportunities for the GOP: Republicans Need New Strategy on the Environment (Samuel Thernstrom, March 28, 2005, Ripon Forum)

With the national electorate closely divided, no party can afford to ignore a chance to seize the high ground on a major issue--and the opportunities for environmental leadership today are enormous. The broad outlines of a new approach to environmental regulation are obvious, but the loudest voices on these issues are firmly committed to the old “command-and-control” (and litigate, litigate, litigate) approach.

The greatest challenge in enacting new environmental legislation is not a lack of issues; it’s lack of leadership. Democrats are loathe to give the President a victory on an issue they consider their own, and Republicans so far have been willing to settle for defeat. The President and congressional leaders are understandably focused on higher profile questions, leaving environmental policymaking to drift. It’s a shame, because the sensible reform agenda is clear, and the political payoff for leading the way could be significant.

Sixty to seventy percent of Americans sympathize with the environmental movement, while only five or six percent are hostile to it. But at the same time, voters don’t take their cues from activists: In 2004, only 9 percent said they would be more likely to vote for the presidential candidate who carried the Sierra Club’s endorsement. And basic party preferences on the environment are more balanced than you might think. Only half of the electorate prefers Democrats, while a quarter to a third prefer Republicans; the rest are evenly divided or undecided.

To make progress on this issue, Republicans will have to overcome a national press corps that considers conservative conservationists oxymoronic. That can be done with a strong agenda and real commitment. Too often, the loudest Republican voices on the environment are hardliners who mock “tree huggers” and dismiss the EPA as an American Gestapo. This ignores the real opportunities here: With environmentalists and Democrats moving steadily to the left, the common sense center is up for grabs.

For more than ten years, America has stood at the threshold of a new era in environmental policymaking, but hasn’t stepped forward. The successes--and failures--of many of our landmark environmental laws (the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Superfund program) have been clear since the 1990s. All have accomplished much, although at needless cost, and all are straining against their limitations, undermined by unforeseen complications and unintended consequences. They haven’t met their goals completely, and they face uncertain prospects for getting the job done.

Enacted a generation ago, these laws have been revised only occasionally and incompletely, if at all. They were the first federal efforts to respond to important--and complicated--problems. It’s not surprising that they weren’t perfect; it’s surprising they worked at all. By now, their strengths and weaknesses are well understood, and yet reforms have been halting at best.

Take, for example, the Clean Air Act. A vast army of state and federal bureaucrats is employed issuing thousands of permits, inspecting facilities, and litigating everything from medical science to speculative engineering questions. Rigid regulations require overly prescriptive and sometimes counterproductive approaches to complex problems. Perverse regulatory incentives hinder innovation, as companies focus on the letter of the law rather than the larger goal of environmental performance. Every sector of the economy--and every household--bears some of the cost of this inefficiency; in some sectors, the cost is considerable. Meanwhile, in some areas, air pollution remains a serious public health problem, despite 35 years of federal regulation.

To do better--to make further improvements in air quality, where it’s needed, at less cost--we need a better regulatory approach. We need an approach that promotes less bureaucracy, less litigation, more flexibility and innovation--and perhaps most importantly, more reliable results. In broad terms, we know what is needed, but cannot agree on how to do it.

It's an issue that's been sitting there for awhile just waiting for the Republican willing to face the fury of his own party for talking it up.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 29, 2005 12:00 AM

Hasn't been done since Nixon.

Posted by: ghostcat at March 29, 2005 12:23 AM

More like since TR

Posted by: oj at March 29, 2005 12:32 AM

The best model for this is probably Bush's take on education in 2000--make it clear to the electorate that it's important to you, ignore the hits from the left, and spark enough hits from the right to give some credibility. This will take someone more Bush-like in 2008 than is currently running.

Posted by: Timothy at March 29, 2005 12:46 AM

OJ -

In terms of having one's heart and soul in it ... "it" being good stewardship ... you're right.

Posted by: ghostcat at March 29, 2005 12:57 AM


McCain could pull it off.

Posted by: oj at March 29, 2005 1:10 AM

Good call, though that may only be because McCain's going to have a hard enough time getting through the primary. Recent questions about the ethics surrounding CFR may have made that all but impossible.

He's going to have to do a lot better courting of the base than he has so far, and I just don't know if he has it in him. I'm certainly willing to give him a chance (especially since he'll likely only serve one term), but not yet.

Posted by: Timothy at March 29, 2005 2:14 AM

McCain and Hagel.

McCain won't be a good pres.

Posted by: Sandy P at March 29, 2005 2:27 AM

oj, you've recently discovered Long Tail Economics (painting my basement, too tired to dig up a link.) So consider this. Environmentalism has become a game of Pin The Negative Externality On the Donkey, and externalities are very much a long tail phenomenon, or in plain English: your enemies can always find a new one and so nickel-and-dime you out of what you thought was your property. Tread carefully here.

Posted by: joe shropshire at March 29, 2005 2:32 AM

Well said, Joe. Stewardship is great and noble when applied to local, identifiable blights like urban air quality, parks and stinking rivers, but the name of the game today is global fairy-tales and I'm at a loss as to how to fashion an environmentalism that can cope with that. It is astounding how easily well-meaning business and other mainstream interests can be sucked into modern eco-drivel and become the prisoners of experts and activists (Look at the foundation and NGO worlds). I recall from my government days meeting a newly appointed high-level environmental advisor to the PM from the corporate law community. He was full of piss and vinegar about how his kids were teaching him things he never knew and how we all had to "completely change the way we do things." Scary.

In this regard, I found the post a while back about the evangelical leader who is now pushing global warming based upon his observations during a snorkeling holiday to Australia to be quite depressing.

Posted by: Peter B at March 29, 2005 6:34 AM


Yes, that there are externalties makes it necessary to regulate property owners.

Posted by: oj at March 29, 2005 7:31 AM

Sorry, but this is pie in the sky -- literally. The president pushed his Clear Skies initiative throughout the first term. It is a very good example of the sort of Republican environmentalistm that this piece is calling for. It would be effective, it uses markets and respects property rights and it strikes a good balance between the environment and industry. All the president got from the environmental lobby was attacks claiming that he wanted to reverse the Clean Air Act and increase air pollution.

The environmental lobby's political agenda is primarily to elect Democrats. It is a member of the left coalition and trying to appease them with Republican environmentalism is like trying to win over NOW with Republican feminism.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 29, 2005 7:45 AM


If Clear Skies has 20% name recognition I'll dive into that river Bill Weld went in.

Posted by: oj at March 29, 2005 7:50 AM

oj: that there are environmentalists, many of whom rival you for available leisure time, makes it necessary to figure out a way to eventually stop regulating. You don't know how to do that.

Posted by: joe shropshire at March 29, 2005 7:55 AM

Isn't that my point: nobody knows about it and the President gets no credit for it.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 29, 2005 8:15 AM


Sure, you do. Steal the issue from them.

Posted by: oj at March 29, 2005 8:15 AM


No, your point was that he's tried. He hasn't. When he wanted Saddam he invented WMD. When he wanted SS Reform he invented a crisis. He went on national tv for the stem cell speech. He could whip up an enviro frenzy in a heartbeat.

Posted by: oj at March 29, 2005 8:22 AM

An envirofrenzy is the last thing we need.

David is right, the example the author used to illustrate his point (reforming the Clean Air Act) is just asinine. Replacing one piece of complex regulation with another just gives the environmental lobby the chance to paint the administration any way they want to.

If Bush wants any credit at all for environmental initiatives (during rather than 15 years after his term) they will have to be the sorts of things that are so simple and dramatic that they will be understood as good by event the most brainless of local network news anchors.

The President's Healthy Forests Initiative is doing a world of good in the area I work in (I am a forester), but look at how much credit he has gotten for that.

Though I would love to se the President do more, and would LOVE to see him get some credit for the things he has done already, I would be satisfied if he keeps focusing on crushing Islamic terrorism and promoting democracy abroad.

Posted by: Jason Johnson at March 29, 2005 9:23 AM

Well, at 7:45 it's entirely possible that my own point escaped me, but going back and rereading it seems pretty clear that my point is that any Republican environmental policy is going to be attacked as selling out to the polluters, because, by definition, that's what a Republican environmental policy is. The people who claim to care about these issues don't. They care about electing Democrats.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 29, 2005 9:30 AM

Bush's wide ranging energy program is getting some traction but it needs some common sense fuel conservation measures to show he's serious about getting the public behind some of its more controversial aspects. We're supposed to be at war with the supporters of terrorism but he has never asked Americans to sacrifice our habits and comforts with the glaring exception of those on active service, in the reserves, N.G. and their families. It will catch up with him, as it already has with the NH electorate in 2004 when he should have been a shoo in.

The feeling exists his prime emphasis these days is on windmills.

Regarding the professional environazis these days ... they're becoming irrelevant.

Cheney/Rice in 2008!

Posted by: Genecis at March 29, 2005 10:13 AM

Genecis: Conservation has its good points, but it is completely useless in fighting terrorism. There is no mechanism by which less petroleum use in the US makes us any safer. It will not make the Arabs love us any more, it will not starve the terrorists of money, it will not reduce our (at this point mostly theoretical) exposure to an OPEC shutdown. Remember that Persian Gulf petroleum is less than 25% of all US oil imports and accounts for less than 15% of US petroleum use.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 29, 2005 10:49 AM

"The president pushed his Clear Skies initiative throughout the first term." Is inaccurate.

Posted by: oj at March 29, 2005 11:32 AM

The concept of "envionmentalism" is popular and getting more popular every year. I think OJ is obviously correct, that Republicans need to "steal" the issue from Democrats, otherwise it will become considerably more difficult to win elections.

I think this will have a positive effect in Red States and is needed badly if Republicans have any chance in California, Oregon, Washington. Republicans might lose Colorado and other Rocky Mountain states unless they become identified as protectors of the environment. I'm not going to address the actual proposals other than to mention Peter Huber (cato institute, i think) who distinguishes "hard" environmentalism (national parks, wilderness) from "soft" environmentalism (regulatory intrusions etc). Bottomline is that environmentalism sells.

Posted by: h-man at March 29, 2005 12:04 PM


The low priority of the issue is amply demonstrated there, though if by "push" you meant not totally silent then I yield.

Posted by: oj at March 29, 2005 12:41 PM

Ha! In your face, Suckerrr.

Posted by: David Cohen at March 29, 2005 12:49 PM

In similar fashion, I'm in the midst of my big job "push"...

Posted by: oj at March 29, 2005 1:03 PM

Republicans as a whole have no hope of recapturing the environment as an issue. But individual Republicans, on the other hand, have an opportunity. And when enough individual Republicans have done just that, suddenly the party is repositioned.

I'd suggest that the best person to try this with in 2006 is whatever Republican runs against Cantwell here in WA.

Posted by: Timothy at March 29, 2005 1:05 PM

Being moderately "pro-environment" didn't help "Sierra" Slade Gortan against Cantwell, did it?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at March 29, 2005 1:32 PM

Many on the Right ... most notably but not exclusively Limbaugh ... have mocked environmentalism as neo-communism and a pseudo-post-Christian religion. The trick is for some creative conservative to do the jujitsu thing and advocate good stewardship precisely on religious grounds.

Posted by: ghostcat at March 29, 2005 2:19 PM

If Cantwell then was in the financial shape she's in now, Gorton would have won in a walk.

Posted by: Timothy at March 29, 2005 2:41 PM