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Fresh air
A rising chorus of Republicans — from NRA members to evangelicals — is calling for GOP-style solutions to environmental woes
McCain hugs a tree

In the June issue of Men’s Health magazine, potential 2008 presidential candidate and moderate — by Republican standards, at least — John McCain said George Bush’s legacy on the environment would be "very low." When asked if corporate influence was a factor in Bush’s environmental policy, he didn’t deny it. "I’m not sure why there has been such great resistance in the Bush administration to do, you know, almost anything," he said.

Last Sunday, when the Arizona senator appeared on NBC News’s Meet the Press, he backpedaled slightly ("Perhaps maybe I was too harsh in my comments in [Men’s Health]"), but didn’t stray too far: "On the issue of climate change, I’m very disappointed," he told host Tim Russert.

"I think we need to act. I really do," McCain continued. He even managed to weave in a foreign-policy connection. "I think it’s one of the issues that causes problems between ourselves and Europeans."

— DF

Bucking red-state clichés and long-term political trends, a diverse, dedicated, and apparently growing constituency of Republicans is fighting to bring environmental concerns back into the agenda of the party Howard Dean calls the preserve of white Christians who "all behave the same." It turns out that many among the GOP faithful want to breathe fresh air, drink clean water, and put the brakes on global warming, just like pro-choice, gay-marrying liberals do. Is this the wave of the political future? Don’t bet the farm on it, but, at the very least, two time-tested political maxims — first, that liberal Democrats are the sole guardians of environmentalism, and second, that Republicans are either indifferent or outright hostile to environmental issues — may be on the verge of collapse.

While George W. Bush commands fiercely partisan obedience to the party line, there are signs that he’s alienating some among the GOP coalition: NRA-supporting outdoorsman, who insist on open space and clean air and water; moderate Republicans who hark back to the days when "conservation" was a logical extension of conservatism; young Republicans who, like most young people according to numerous polls, place environmental issues high on their list of political concerns; and even evangelicals, who call "creation care" their biblical duty. On top of all this, a combination of national polls and local initiatives shows that conservative voters never rejected environmentalism the way their political leaders did.

At the same time, liberal environmentalists are going through something like a crisis of the soul. In January, after environmental organizations poured millions of dollars and significant manpower into November’s presidential election, yet failed to get the result they desired, strategists Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus wrote a groundbreaking essay, "The Death of Environmentalism," that stirred the community to its core. In it, they suggest that the entire environmental movement is stuck in a deep rut: "Environmental groups have spent the last 40 years defining themselves against conservative values like cost-benefit accounting, smaller government, fewer regulations, and free trade, without ever articulating a coherent morality we can call our own." Activists have poured too much energy into technical (and often insufficient) policies, they write, and not enough into molding an underlying political message.

There’s something to the political assumptions, of course. After a spate of 1970s-era environmental regulations — many signed by Richard Nixon — a chasm emerged as Democratic politicians (and a handful of moderate, mostly Northeastern Republicans) took the lead on green issues, and their conservative counterparts moved to the right. By the ’80s, some among the Democrats’ left wing had even made environmental stewardship the spiritual foundation of their politics; later, Al Gore made such issues a centerpiece of his 2000 presidential bid. For their part, anti-regulation Republican lawmakers, first during the Reagan administration and even more so during Newt Gingrich’s congressional reign, aligned themselves with industry interests — and grew more powerful at the expense of environmental protections. George W. Bush has pushed that agenda even further, weakening existing protections, largely ignoring global warming, and agitating to drill for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But take a look at where things stand today. With Bush facing lame-duck status, congressional Republicans with moderate leanings are beginning to get their sea legs, as evidenced by the so-called Gang of 14 judicial-filibuster compromise and the House’s recent approval of $100 million for stem-cell research. Is it possible, then, that the two sides could find common ground? Can the red states turn green?

The long view

Last November, 111 communities — both blue and red — in 25 states passed $11 billion in conservation ballot measures, according to the Trust for Public Land, a national organization. "Republicans and conservatives are much greener than their leadership in state and federal government," says Keith Schneider, deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. "Smart Growth appears to be transcending partisanship," he wrote last December, referring to transit and development initiatives that preserve land, ease pollution, and win bipartisan support. Still, a disconnect exists between the general public and conservative political leaders.

Enter Martha Marks, a 58-year-old lifelong Republican, who grew up in a conservative household with a father in the military. She consistently votes for candidates who support fiscal conservatism, strong defense, and individual responsibility — usually Republicans. But she also defines herself as a moderate, and 10 years ago, when Newt Gingrich and his right-wing crew began undercutting environmental regulations that protect our air, water, and land, Marks "saw a need to make the Republican Party more environmentally friendly."

So, in 1995, she founded Republicans for Environmental Protection, or REP America, which today has 2500 members and nine official state chapters. It’s an unambiguously partisan organization, one that chose not to endorse any presidential candidate in 2004 rather than damage its Republican credibility by supporting John Kerry. The group is still small, but that’s by design; Marks is taking it slow. In fact, she compares her mission to the 30-year investment her party’s right wing made to drag Republicans in a more conservative direction — an investment that seems to have paid off. Now, Marks expects it will take another "two- or three-decade process" to turn the Republican stand on environmentalism around.

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Issue Date: June 24 - 30, 2005
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