These days, it seems rather odd to use the word “conservative” and “environmentalist” in the same sentence. But that wasn’t always the case. Recently, I interviewed Jim DiPeso, who is the Policy Director for Republicans for Environmental Protection, a national organization for “Green Republicans.”
The group’s mission listed on their website is this:
Republicans for Environmental Protection was founded in 1995 to resurrect the GOP’s great conservation tradition and to restore natural resource conservation and sound environmental protection as fundamental elements of the Republican Party’s vision for America.
On a personal note, I have been a member of REP since 2001. During the interview, we talked about the GOP’s environmental heritage, how it got off track and what lies ahead.
Could you tell me a little about Republicans for Environmental Protection and what your role is there?
Republicans for Environmental Protection (www.rep.org) is a grassroots, non-profit, membership organization that was founded in 1995 to help the party reclaim its history and heritage as the party of conservation and stewardship. For several reasons, environmental issues are polarized along partisan lines. This is not a healthy state of affairs, either for the Republican Party or for our nation. Weâ€™re working to correct this problem through education and advocacy activities.
As the policy director, I am responsible for developing our positions on key environmental and conservation issues, and communicating our message to target audiences.
How would you describe the election results? Do you think environmental issues played a role in McCain’s defeat? Did they play a role in congressional elections?
For Republicans, the election results were disappointing, but in many ways we brought the election losses on ourselves. Our failure to communicate a strong environmental stewardship message that fits with traditional conservative principles is one, but by no means the only failing that caused the party to lose the trust of many voters.
John McCain lost largely because the Republican â€œbrandâ€ is damaged. But even though he ran against gale-force political headwinds, McCain still secured around 47 percent of the popular vote. Thatâ€™s a reflection of his character, experience, and the high regard in which he is held across the nation. McCain is the only GOP candidate who could have threaded the needle and kept the White House in Republican hands.
Itâ€™s not likely that the environment played a role in McCainâ€™s defeat or in congressional losses. When the financial storm hit in late September, that blew all other issues aside. It was a â€œfinal strawâ€ that convinced many voters who might otherwise have voted for McCain and perhaps GOP congressional candidates that it was time to take the keys away from Republicans.
REP endorsed McCain in 2007. What led to the endorsement?
John McCainâ€™s record put him head and shoulders above all other Republican candidates for president. No member of Congress, Republican or Democrat, has done more to push for limits on greenhouse gas emissions, the single most important environmental issue that America faces. Time and again, he has expended political capital on a cause that is unpopular among Republican officials and opinion leaders and he did so because he believes in it. In doing so, he has adhered to the traditional conservative ethics of prudence and stewardship.
McCain also has championed conserving our natural heritage, including parks and wilderness. He worked across the aisle, for example, with Congressman Morris Udall to expand protection of Arizona wilderness, and secured passage of legislation to protect the Grand Canyon from aircraft overflight noise.
It seemed like McCain muted his environmental record and joined the “Drill, Baby, Drill” chorus. Do you think that’s correct and why do you think he did that?
â€œDrill, baby, drillâ€ was one of those catchy political slogans that took on a life of its own because of its power to rev up partisan crowds. Remember Walter Mondaleâ€™s â€œWhereâ€™s the beef?â€ slogan in 1984? The â€œdrill, baby, drillâ€ slogan took off like wildfire at the Republican convention â€” party conventions are one-quarter civics and three-quarters carnival â€” when $4-per-gallon gasoline was still fresh in votersâ€™ minds and public support for offshore drilling was high.
While McCain talked about offshore drilling, domestic oil production was only one part of his Lexington Energy Project, which was a broad, thoughtful proposal to expand and diversify our nationâ€™s energy portfolio.
In the past, it was President Nixon who created the EPA and signed some of the major environmental laws like the endangered species act. What do you think made the GOP play down such an environmental heritage in recent elections?
Thatâ€™s the $64 question. There are several causes for the polarization of environmental issues along partisan lines. Bear with me while I weave together political and sociological threads to answer the question.
First, there has always been a strain of extreme libertarianism within the Republican family that almost always prefers private, voluntary measures to government action for problem solving. Those who believe in unfettered markets have expanded their influence within the Republican Party over the past two or three decades.
In our media-saturated society, Rush Limbaugh and other talk radio entertainers have turned that political strain into an extreme ideology that subordinates virtually all values, including environmental stewardship, to materialism and personal gratification. They call this extremism â€œconservative.â€ Anyone who has studied the ideas of traditional conservatism that were developed by Edmund Burke and other thinkers can easily see that there is little in talk radioâ€™s radical ideology that is truly conservative. However, the radio bloviators are viewed as the arbiters of conservatism, and it is urgently necessary to correct the twisted meaning of conservatism that they are peddling.
Second, and related to the first problem, is that environmental protection has become conflated with liberal ideology, thanks in no small part to political leftists who believe that they have cornered the market on environmental virtue. This conflation began during the social tumult of the 1960s and early 1970s. The identification of environmental protection with the leftist counterculture alienated conservatives.
Hereâ€™s a contemporary example of the consequences: Al Goreâ€™s championing of global warming has been a double-edged sword. He certainly broadened awareness of the issue, but its identification with him has turned off Republicans.
Bottom line is that it is essential for Republicans to rediscover that conservation is conservative. Environmental issues should not be pooh-poohed because the talk radio crowd says so, and should not be avoided because Al Gore and the liberals think that they own them. We should champion stewardship because it is consistent with sound conservative principles.
As the GOP starts thinking about its future, what role does REP have in that discussion?
Our job is to convince the party that it must re-embrace environmental stewardship as part of a new vision grounded in old truths. That doesnâ€™t mean me-tooing the Democrats, but it does mean taking the issue seriously, communicating a strong, positive stewardship message, and coming up with solutions that fit with traditional conservative principles.
What is next for REP in the near future (3-5 years)?
We will work on restoring the GOP as the party of stewardship, advocating on selected issues conducive to our mission, and gearing up for the 2010 and 2012 election cycles which, alas, have already begun.