Sunday, April 18, 2010

GOP environmental group asks "What Would Reagan Do?" on climate change

Ronald Reagan's cult appeal has reached an almost mythical status in the Republican Party. During the 2008 GOP primary, every candidate argued ad nauseum over who was more like the Gipper. Last fall, Republican National Committee members proposed a conservative purity test based on Reagan's "unity principle," that "someone who agreed with him 8 out of 10 times was his friend, not his opponent." Of course Reagan would have failed the test, but don't tell the RNC.

Especially on teevee, it seems like nearly everyone on the right is asking "What Would Reagan Do?" about every political issue du jour. When the compromise climate bill hits the Senate next week, it will undoubtedly face fierce opposition from many conservatives. Some may use Reagan to illustrate their disapproval. But a Republican environmental group (yes, it sounds like an oxymoron) is using Reagan's own words to challenge the GOP consensus on climate change and energy legislation.

The group Republicans for Environmental Protection is buying airtime on conservative talk radio stations across South Carolina, as well as in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. They're running ads during the Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh programs which feature Reagan speaking about protecting the environment.
The ads, which include clips from Ronald Reagan's speeches, honor the former president's memory as a conservationist and remind listeners that good environmental stewardship, including action to address climate change, is consistent with true conservative values.
REP Vice President David Jenkins says Beck and Limbaugh often claim their views match Reagan's. "In doing so, they leave their audiences with the impression that Reagan would share their skepticism about climate change and oppose action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions -- an impression that liberals are equally happy to perpetuate," said Jenkins.

Of course, Ronald Reagan wasn't exactly the environment's biggest friend while in office. He reduced the Environmental Protection Agency's budget by 30% his first year in office, fought against environmental regulations and opened public lands up for mining. Reagan also dismissed plans to fight acid rain, calling them "burdensome to industry" and wasteful government spending.

But Reagan's environmental record could certainly have been worse, even for a Republican. "People on both sides of the argument say the environmental legacy of the Reagan era is a stalemate," the New York Times concluded in 1989. "[Reagan's] Administration left many serious problems unaddressed and neither revolutionized environmental regulation nor transferred large amounts of public resources to private industry." And after all, George W. Bush made Reagan look like Teddy freakin' Roosevelt.

Reagan did have a few environmental successes. "We especially want people to remember Reagan's leadership in negotiating the Montreal Protocol treaty, which began the phase-out of ozone depleting chemicals and has done more to safeguard the earth's atmosphere than any other law or treaty ever passed," said REP Vice President Jim DiPeso.

"Preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it's common sense," Reagan said in 1984. "Our physical health, our social happiness, and our economic well-being will be sustained only by all of us working in partnership as thoughtful, effective stewards of our natural resources. 

"Some on the right ignore his environmental legacy because it doesn't fit with the image of Reagan that they cultivate to support their own agendas," added Jenkins. Remember, this is a Republican speaking.

"We are reminding the public, and especially our fellow conservatives, that despite what they hear from talk radio showmen, climate change is real and conservatives have, as Reagan said, 'a great moral responsibility' to take prudent action in defense of future generations," DiPeso said.

One Republican senator REP believes is taking action is South Carolina's own Lindsey Graham, who helped draft the compromise bill. Graham will be the guest speaker at REP's Teddy Roosevelt banquet in Washington on April 20. The banquet's sponsors include DuPont, General Electric and Duke Energy, three of the top 20 corporate air polluters in the country. Still, you have to give Graham credit. He's one of the few Republicans willing to actually cooperate with the Democrats, and supported cap and trade legislation. Conservatives responded by attacking Graham in the worst way.

Graham's a bit of a loner in his camp, to be sure. The GOP leadership and most Republican legislators have all spoken out against cap and trade, and opposing the legislation was included as a criterion for that RNC purity test. REP is careful to avoid mentioning cap and trade, but Graham's presence at the banquet just days before the compromise bill is introduced indicates the group may support it. If that's the case, it may pull some weight in Congress: REP's honorary board includes Graham's buddy John McCain, both Maine senators and five sitting House members. Their group is dwindling, however -- 10 other representatives and Sen. Lincoln Chafee were also board members, but all either retired or were defeated in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

There's probably not much of a chance the ads will change the Republican leadership's minds on climate change or legislation to fight it. Many Republicans refuse to admit carbon dioxide can even be harmful. But conservatism's most revered icon delivering a message of environmental conservation may make some on the right pause long enough to consider the message. And cult appeal aside, even liberals must admit Reagan was an excellent salesman -- so who better to pitch conservation to the conservatives than the Gipper himself?

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