Out of limelight, environment resonates as an issue

Bush and the GOP could lose key swing votes on issues such as oil, global warming. Some Republicans stake out 'greener' positions.

In a recent memo to elected GOP leaders, Republican pollster Frank Luntz wrote, "The environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general - and President Bush in particular - are most vulnerable."

Why the concern?

Poll after poll shows a large majority of Americans - including most registered Republicans - want more environmental protection, including wilderness designation and, if necessary, stiffer government regulations to improve air and water quality.

Recent administration actions - such as abandoning the Kyoto agreement on global warming, allowing more snowmobiles in national parks, pushing for new oil and gas drilling in Alaska and the Rocky Mountains, axing large trees to fight wildfires, and exempting the military from some important environmental laws - have resulted in a negative image of Republicans, says Dr. Luntz.

They are "seemingly in the pockets of corporate fat cats who rub their hands together and chuckle manically as they plot to pollute America for fun and profit," he says. That the president and vice president were oilmen does not help the administration's image.

As a result, warns Luntz, "Not only do we risk losing the swing vote, but our suburban female base could abandon us as well."

That's grist for Democratic hopefuls. But even prominent Republicans are distancing themselves from the administration's positions.

New York Gov. George Pataki wants to follow California's lead in reducing carbon emissions from cars. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, with Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman, is sponsoring legislation to reduce climate-changing greenhouse gases. Eight Republican senators joined Democrats in blocking new oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Many among the new generation of Republican politicians seem to be headed in this direction. Recently elected Republican Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts wants to peg the excise tax on motor vehicles to fuel efficiency, while moving state facilities closer to mass transit. He's rankled business leaders by refusing to extend the deadline on a power plant cleanup, and he's kept an active environmentalist as the state's chief of development.

REP America, a national organization of "conservation-minded Republicans," acknowledges "a number of positive actions" by President Bush, including restoration of the Everglades, increased farm conservation programs, and new fuel and engine standards to clean up unhealthy diesel emissions from trucks and buses.

"Overall, however, the Bush administration has promoted a litany of policies that will perpetuate America's risky dependence on fossil fuels, weaken air- and water-quality protection, and degrade America's public lands heritage - resulting in lasting harm to the nation," writes REP America policy director, Jim DiPeso, in the group's recent review of administration policies.

Mr. DiPeso acknowledges that "during times of foreign-policy turmoil and economic uncertainty, the environment generally recedes as an issue in the public consciousness." But, he says, a large number of Americans feel the administration's environmental program is "pretty bad."

Will that affect votes next year? "If the election were held tomorrow, probably not," DiPeso says. "... But 12 months is an eternity in politics." Mr. Bush may be enjoying high public approval these days, but environmental activists see political gold here.

The Democratic presidential hopefuls - mindful of environmental champion Ralph Nader's effect on Al Gore's bid in 2000 - are buffing up their green credentials.

Yet today's political mood - especially following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the recent military victory in Iraq - no doubt will work in Bush's favor. Standing up to "old Europe" on the Kyoto global warming agreement may resonate with those who cheered the president's decision to invade Iraq without United Nations blessings. And, depending on how Bush plays the nation's economic state, a "jobs versus the environment" rationale may work in promoting development.

Still, Republicans should focus on the rhetoric, rather than the substance, of debate, suggests Luntz. They should talk about benign "climate change," not scary "global warming"; describe themselves as moderate "conservationists," not extreme "environmentalists"; downplay the economic argument; and emphasize their personal love of nature.

"Republicans can redefine the environmental debate and make inroads on what conventional wisdom calls a traditionally Democratic constituency, because we offer better policy choices to the Washington-run bureaucracy," says Luntz. "But we have to get the talk right to capture that segment of the public that is willing to give President Bush the benefit of the doubt on the environment."

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