Will The GOP’s New War On Clean Air Revitalize Democrats?

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The public loves clean air and clean water and wind power and solar power. The bulk of the conservative movement, not so much.

In fact, the incoming GOP Senate majority says rolling back EPA clean air standards is their top priority, giving the Democrats a chance to restore their brand as they did when the Gingrich Congress made a similar pro-pollution overreach in the mid-1990s.

But wait, you say, didn’t Democrats overwhelmingly run on all that stuff this year and get their butts whooped on Election Day? Not quite.

It’s true that an analysis of Senate ads found that “energy and the environment are the third-most mentioned issue in political advertisements, behind health care and jobs,” as the New York Times reported. But more of those ads were “pro-coal” or “pro-oil” or “anti-E.P.A.” in states like Kentucky, West Virginia, Alaska, and Louisiana than were “anti-oil” or “green energy” in other states

Heck, the winning candidate in the Colorado Senate race, Republican Cory Gardner, actually ran one of the green energy ads himself, talking up wind turbines. Of course, if you want to know what Senate Republicans are actually going to do about wind, you need to listen to their biggest backers.

Politico reported Monday that “Brent Gardner of the Koch-linked Americans for Prosperity” made clear they would fight hard against even the modest wind production tax credit (PTC): “A vote for the PTC is a vote in support of President Obama’s destructive climate action plan.”

Not only did a mere four percent of the energy and environmental ads explicitly about climate change, but the candidates themselves generally didn’t follow through on that messaging, thereby undercutting it.

Hart Research polled 1,505 likely voters in Colorado, New Hampshire, Michigan, Iowa and North Carolina for three national green groups. In October, they asked voters, “In the past couple of months, how much have you heard about candidates’ positions on this issue?” Here were some of the voters’ answer for “Have heard a lot.”

  • 57 percent Healthcare/Obamacare
  • 40 percent Jobs/economy
  • 17 percent Climate change
  • 16 percent Environmental protection

So, no, voters didn’t hear a particularly loud or consistent message on climate and the environment.

If the lesson some people learn on the basis of this election is that trying to put climate change, clean energy, and the environment on the national agenda won’t ever work, they will be learning the exactly-wrong lesson. Recall that the Koch brothers and the fossil fuel companies and their conservative allies didn’t give up after the 2012 election went far astray for them despite hundreds of millions of dollars of spending. Quite the reverse, team Koch doubled down in 2014 — and won.

And what is the polluters’ reward for their patient victory? The Lexington Herald-Leader interviewed incoming Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) last week and reported that in terms of what he owes Kentucky voters, “the senator said his top priority is “to try to do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in.”

It appears that the GOP plans to go after clean air and clean water very hard. The Hill reported Sunday that “Republican lawmakers are planning an all-out assault on Obama’s environmental agenda, including rules on mercury and other air toxics from power plants, limits on ground-level ozone that causes smog, mountaintop mining restrictions and the EPA’s attempt to redefine its jurisdiction over streams and ponds.”

If the GOP follows through with this plan, Democrats and progressives will have two choices. First, they can refuse to engage the GOP’s attacks and misinformation, weakly saying that, yes, the EPA efforts to protect clean air and water need fixing and revising.

That, of course, was basically the response of many Democratic candidates to the loudest message from GOP ads and GOP candidates this election cycle — on the imaginary failures and horrors of Obamacare. Hardly any mention was made of the 10 million more people who now have health insurance or the fact that employers’ health benefit costs are now growing at a historically low rate.

So the collective message the public heard about Obamacare was “bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, maybe we can fix it, I won’t say if I voted for Obama.” How could such messaging possibly either energize the progressive base or persuade independents to support Democrats? The answer is that it could not. And, of course, it didn’t.

If progressives take a similar approach to environmental protection, green energy, and clean-air standards, they will meet the same result. The alternative is for progressives to embrace a very strong defense of EPA’s politically popular efforts to clean the air and rein in carbon pollution — and the administration’s equally popular efforts to advance clean energy.

Such a strategy worked for Democrats during the Clinton Administration. Indeed, in 1995, when the newly elected Newt Gingrich Congress tried to kill EPA efforts to protect the environment and tried to zero out a clean energy investments by the Department of Energy, the Clinton administration along with congressional Democrats and progressives and environmentalists pushed back hard. The result was a significant revitalization for Democrats and the worst of Gingrich’s plans were stopped.

It is time for those who understand what is at stake with the fight against the pro-collapse polluters to speak up!