WASHINGTON — More than seven months ahead of midterm elections, both Democrats and Republicans are nervous.
Republicans are feeling gravity's pull - on their poll numbers at least - with a president who has lapsed into strong negative approval numbers and an ethics scandal knocking on their door. Democrats are hopeful, but concerned that they lack a vision. And even though this is the same concern they've had for, oh, the past 40 years, in 2006 it is nagging them because party leaders think they have a chance to actually take back some seats - maybe even a chamber of Congress or two - if they can get voters motivated.
Both sides are looking for something to organize the election around. Something besides Iraq, that is, which is a wonderful issue to chat about until one is forced to come up with an answer. And while they cast about for agendas, the issue for 2006 is staring them in the face.
What if this year's midterm elections weren't about blue politics or red politics, but green? If there was ever a time for the environment to become a political topic, a positive one for either side, it's this year.
If talked about the right way, the environment can be used to link up key issues in the campaign. It can be all about national security, if the goal is to encourage clean technologies that reduce foreign oil consumption. It can be about voters' pocketbooks, if the point is to reduce driving or increase the number of hybrids that burn less gas costing $3 a gallon. It can be a moral issue, if the question is stewardship of the land.
So far, however, other than a few throwaway lines in a less-than-memorable State of the Union speech (remember that brief discussion of oil dependence and switch grass), the environment has not been garnering a lot of attention in the nation's political discourse. Why is that?
Democrats appear still to be afraid of the topic and the hippie, tree-hugging identity long associated with it. The war over the environment ended long ago. Everyone is "pro-environment" now. But if a candidate elevates the issue and tries to make it a major talking point, there's still the fear of being branded a crunchy liberal, or worse, Dennis Kucinich.
For Republicans, environmental talk just doesn't come easily. After all, it's the conservative talk-show hosts who love to label the Democrats as flaky tree huggers. And too often, the GOP-friendly business interests see environmental rules as things to be fought, or worse, ignored.
But there are signs in the electorate that this kind of thinking is outmoded.
A poll conducted earlier this year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that there are some environmental issues that score well with Democrats, Republicans, and independents. All three groups were in favor of "requiring better fuel efficiency for cars, trucks, and SUVs" (86 percent for, 12 percent against) and "increasing federal funding for research on wind, solar, and hydrogen energy" (82 percent for, 14 percent against). There was even bipartisan support for "spending more on subway, rail and bus systems" (68 percent for, 26 percent against).
And these issues can go beyond national security and clean air to job creation. The befuddled US auto industry, which moves cautiously, would have no choice but to jump more boldly into the world of green engineering if the government gave it a kick.
It's also possible - not certain - that such a discussion could even elevate the political discourse in this country and get both sides in Washington talking about fixing problems again, instead of trying to score points in the debate or defend their team.
Of course, considering the way things have been going in this town lately, that's wishful thinking. Even if politicians in both parties take up the issue, it will probably come with more than a little cheesiness piled on top.
I can imagine the debate already: "Senator, you said your car gets 31 miles to the gallon, yet government tests have proven it gets no more than 29. Your m.p.g. is a l.i.e."
But at least it would be a start.
Both parties say they want to connect with voters and come up with a bold agenda. Here's an issue just waiting for someone, anyone, to pick it up.
It's certainly better than talking about Dubai Ports World for another seven months.
• Dante Chinni writes a twice-monthly political column for the Monitor.