Can the GOP go green?

The Republican Party isn’t what it used to be. Thanks to President Bush’s botched foreign, environmental and economic policies, a whopping 52 percent of Americans now have an unfavorable view of the party; these days, the GOP is struggling even to find candidates for November’s congressional elections. “If the Republican Party were a brand of cereal, it would be discontinued by its maker,” sighed political analyst Stuart Rothenberg recently.

Salvation could be at hand, though: GOP grandees increasingly believe that an overhaul of the party’s environmental policies could spark a Republican revival. Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman argued recently that by taking a more proactive stance on climate change, the GOP could win back the independent voters it lost in the 2006 midterm elections. A leaner, greener GOP might also do well among security-minded voters, who like the idea of energy independence, and with the religious right’s eco-evangelical wing.

It would wonderful, of course, to see the Republicans abandon their climate skepticism and begin to debate substantively the best ways to solve America’s environmental crisis. And now’s a good time for the party to rebrand: John McCain is already pitching himself as a green crusader, and it should be easy enough for Republican lawmakers to jump on board his bandwagon. It helps, too, that the GOP’s ranking members on the Senate environment and energy committees are likely to leave their posts in November, clearing the way for fresh blood and a new message.

Unfortunately, it’s far from clear that the Republican rank and file will be willing to join in the greening of their party. GOP lawmakers held a closed-door meeting this week in a bid to reach agreement about the way forward - but utterly failed to reach anything like a consensus. Instead, the meeting underscored the rift between the party’s McCain-Warner wing, which takes climate change reasonably seriously, and the Bush-Inhofe flank, which tends toward apathy and outright climate-change denial.

Even if the GOP does manage to find a single voice it won’t make much difference. Republicans can’t out-green the Democrats without scaring off their own conservative base - so their rebranding is aimed not at saving the planet but at becoming just green enough to blunt the Democrats’ environmental advantage with independent voters. That means we can expect to see the GOP paying more lip-service to environmental issues - but stopping well short of supporting the kind of substantive changes we so badly need.





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GOP candidates don't have to scare off their base in order to follow Ken Mehlman's advice. It's all a matter of how the issue is framed. Surveys of GOP voters conducted by Republican pollster Whit Ayres have shown that talking about climate change policies in the context of strengthening energy security and promoting economic development will resonate favorably with those voters.

At a Society of Environmental Journalists' forum last week, McCain energy policy adviser James Woolsey told an interesting story that illustrates this point. As Woolsey listened to a GOP congressman argue with him at a hearing about climate change, Woolsey turned the conversation around by reminding the congressman that most climate solutions also are energy security solutions. I.e., even if conservatives don’t agree that climate change is a problem, they can still support climate solutions that also solve other problems that conservatives worry about. People can support the same solutions for different reasons, and that’s OK.

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