Wanted: The next great Republican environmental hero

Will the next Teddy Roosevelt or Arnold Schwarzenegger please stand up?

Kirk Weinert
Nov 19, 2018 · 7 min read
Teddy Roosevelt on Bird Island in 1915 (From U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

A New York Times op-ed penned by Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC) has been making the rounds on social media for the past week.

In “A Wake-Up Call for the G.O.P.,” Sanford reflects on the dearth of conservative leaders who fight for conservation. It may seem like ancient history, but not too long ago, more than a few prominent Republicans were proud environmentalists.

I’m talking about people such as former Pres. George H.W. Bush, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA), former Rep. Sherry Boehlert (once chair of the House Science Committee) and William Ruckelshaus (the first head of the Environmental Protection Agency).

These leaders did more than vote the right way some or much of the time. They made environmental protection a priority, often against the wishes of many of their campaign contributors and colleagues.

To gain or retain power, Bush 41 didn’t have to publicly announce that he wanted to strengthen the Clean Air Act soon after he became president in 1989. Boehlert didn’t have to insist on including amendments to that act that drastically reduced acid rain-causing emissions. Schwarzenegger didn’t have to push for ground-breaking measures to combat global warming. Ruckelshaus didn’t have to use his agency’s new powers to crack down on air and water polluters.

But they did — and our nation is better off because they did.

Those four and their ilk have aged and are unlikely to run for office anymore. Many have left the GOP in spirit, if not in name, often to the glee of the current party leadership. None of them publicly endorsed Donald Trump. And, this year, Boehlert endorsed a Democrat to take his old House seat in upstate New York. (The Democrat won.)

Who are their successors in the Republican party? Who will carry forward the torch first lit by Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot (Roosevelt’s Forests Service director, later Pennsylvania governor), and Oregon’s Gov. Tom McCall?

No candidates have stepped to the fore. That’s a big problem.

Some partisan Democrats argue that environmentally-minded politicians should all join their party. That, they theorize, will make it more likely that Democrats will win enough political power to pass the bold environmental measures our world so desperately needs.

But that strategy has been tried and, except in a few states, has miserably failed to help the environment.

On the other hand, influential industries prone to pollution have pressured many Republicans to oppose environmental laws and deny climate change. The competing messages have driven a wedge between the two parties. In 1991, a Gallup poll found that 78 percent of both Republicans and Democrats considered themselves an “environmentalist.” But, in 2016, there was a 29 point difference: 27 percent of Republicans vs 56 percent of Democrats. This year, a Pew survey found that while 82 percent of voters supporting Democratic candidates for the U.S. House said that the environment would be very important to their vote, only 38 percent of Republicans agreed. That 44 point gap was the largest for any issue in the survey, by a large margin.

Environmentalists have spent most of their time since that 1991 poll trying to defend the accomplishments of the 1970s and ’80s. The only significant policy gains coming out of D.C. have either been snuck into broad emergency legislation (such as the 2009 stimulus package’s huge funding for renewable energy and energy efficiency) or enacted by executive orders and agency regulations that Congress, state Attorneys General, and the Trump Administration have been trying to repeal (fortunately, not always successfully).

The situation hasn’t been that different in the states. Even when there’s been progress, it’s taken the support of key Republican leaders to make them happen: Schwarzenegger; Colorado’s Norma Anderson, the House minority leader who co-chaired the campaign behind the first “renewable energy mandate” initiative to win at the ballot; and, more recently, California Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, who voted for the state’s groundbreaking Clean Power Act.

History tells us that the environmental protections that have really made a difference — the ones we now almost take for granted — were enacted with the support of at least several major Republican politicians and a large number of Republican voters. Think of our national parks and monuments, the Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Hazardous Substances Act, state renewable energy mandates, state recycling programs, etc., etc. None would still be around if they relied just on the fleeting support of just over half of politicians and voters.

So, which current Republican will step to the plate, either out of deep, sincere concern for the environment (a la Roosevelt, Schwarzenegger, McCall) or political expediency (a la Richard Nixon)?

I appreciate that it will take courage to take such a step. Republican environmentalists face a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma.

On the one hand, they risk losing elections so long as voters are as polarized on the environment as they are now. As Sanford, the about-to-be-former Republican Representative from South Carolina, described in his Times op-ed, a candidate who bashed Sanford for opposing offshore oil drilling defeated him in the GOP primary election. Sanford notes, though, that his opponent’s strategy “worked in the primary, but it fell flat in the general election.” Democrat Joe Cunningham, who shared Sanford’s views on drilling, defeated the candidate who ousted Sanford in the primary.

I also know of a case in Pennsylvania where an environmental group wanted to endorse a Republican in his primary who had been a great ally on anti-fracking legislation. However, the candidate did everything he could to avoid being publicly associated with the group. That Republican was just being politically savvy — for the short term. He also won his primary, but lost his general election bid.

The tale of Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), who was defeated for re-election last week despite being the GOP co-founder of the bipartisan Climate Caucus, will undoubtedly be told as “you can’t do enough to please those darn environmentalists” in Republican circles.

The Republican party has changed a lot, not just since 1991, but in the past few years. Who could have foreseen the abrupt change in Republican attitudes about Vladimir Putin? But in this hyperpartisan era, Republican voters’ views on Putin are swayed by the positive words about him emanating from party leaders in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

So, imagine if a prominent Republican politician (or several of them) chose to rally the faithful toward environmentalism. If they could evoke the spirit and passion of Roosevelt, there’s a chance that a lot of Republicans might follow him or her.

In today’s political climate, it’s very hard to imagine that environmental champion being a legislator, especially in Congress.

A current executive, especially one who got into office for reasons largely unrelated to her or his environmental attitude, is a more likely advocate. Many past Republican heroes rose to power for freakish reasons: Roosevelt had been shunted into the vice-presidency to mute his anti-establishment views, but wound up in the White House when Pres. William McKinley was assassinated. Schwarzenegger parlayed his Hollywood celebrity and a crookedly-manufactured energy crisis into winning an unprecedented recall election for governor. William Weld, the governor who championed Massachusetts’ 1996 River Protection Act, first was elected largely because his Democratic opponent (John Silber) was a bete noire for the state’s liberals.

Governors Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland, each of whom soundly defeated Democratic challengers on Election Day two weeks ago, pop to mind as potential candidates. But neither prioritized the environment during their first four years and just not rolling back environmental laws isn’t good enough to meet the “hero” standard.

I’m not volunteering myself for the job, having already turned down the chance once before. Thirty-some years ago, my GOP-activist parents tried to convince me to move back home to eastern Pennsylvania and run for Congress to replace the incumbent, who they thought was retiring. They swore they could grease my way through the primary. But, frankly, they were either delusional or didn’t fully appreciate how different my attitudes about the environment (and other matters) differed from those of the Republican electorate of a district once best known as the home of such mega-polluters as Bethlehem Steel and Lehigh Portland Cement. I passed on the opportunity.

But I know that there’s some Republican out there who can fit the bill, probably someone as old as I was then.

If you could be that someone, please apply now.

You may not be invited to as many swanky donor parties. The pay won’t be as good as you’d get elsewhere. You’re going to get a lot of grief from both your fellow party members and from people like me who will push you to do things differently than you prefer.

But my grandchildren will thank you. Your grandchildren will thank you. Your country and your planet will thank you.

And, 30 years from now, someone will write a post like this, asking who will follow in your illustrious footsteps.

Who could ask for anything more?

The Public Interest Network

The Public Interest Network

The Public Interest Network runs organizations committed to our vision of a better world, a set of core values, and a strategic approach to getting things done. https://publicinterestnetwork.org/

Kirk Weinert

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The Public Interest Network

The Public Interest Network runs organizations committed to our vision of a better world, a set of core values, and a strategic approach to getting things done. https://publicinterestnetwork.org/