With the ignominious collapse of cap and trade legislation in the Senate, the climate campaign is licking its wounds and wondering where it went wrong. Greens are pointing fingers at the bad economy, the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, and those dastardly Earth-hating Republicans. But they ought to look in the mirror, for the fault lies with themselves.
Politico’s environmental reporter Darren Samuelsohn quoted an anonymous White House official speaking disdainfully about the climate campaign’s efforts: “They didn’t deliver a single Republican. They spent like $100 million, and they weren’t able to get a single Republican convert on the bill.” Maybe this is because the environmental movement made a strategic error years ago by deciding to make itself an adjunct of the left wing of the Democratic party.
At times the greens have been quite open about this. Back in 2005 a group of leading climate campaigners met in Aspen to plot strategy. According to a conference report Yale University published, one faction argued that “the only way to proceed is to exercise raw political power, wake up the public about the urgent nature of the issue, create a major public demand for action comparable to that which stimulated major environmental legislation in the 1970s, pursue outright victory at the polls.” In other words, we need to boot out or roll over the Republicans. The 2008 election delivered their moment, and now their moment is gone.
The greens have been so relentlessly hostile to all Republicans—even ones with conventionally pro-environment records—that Republicans have little reason to accommodate their views. Senator Lindsey Graham, a possible convert on cap and trade, laid it out clearly to Samuelsohn: “So when you hear the environmental community is mad at you, everyone says, ‘Tell me something new.’ It’s not like a support group you’ve lost.”
To be sure, many conservatives are hostile to the environmental agenda for good and bad reasons, and I’ve made the case that they owe more serious attention to the full spectrum of environmental issues. But the partisan bad faith of the organized environmental establishment is glaring.
Consider the case of the first President Bush, who pushed hard for a new Clean Air Act in 1990 (most environmental groups boycotted the signing ceremony on the White House lawn, though), and then went to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, signing the U.N. treaty on climate change that set the Kyoto Protocol process in motion, and also signing a major biodiversity treaty. So how many environmental groups endorsed Bush for reelection in 1992? In round numbers: zero.
A better example is the explicitly political League of Conservation Voters, which puts out an annual legislative scorecard that ranks every member of Congress on about 20 key votes. Of course an advocacy group is entitled to construct a rating system based on policy outcomes consistent with its ideology, but the League of Conservation Voters scorecards seem especially calculated to make Republicans look bad and to carry water for other left-leaning interest groups with scored votes that have only minimal connection to the environment.
The most egregious example is from the League of Conservation Voters’ 2005 scorecard, where one of the 20 key Senate votes was the confirmation of Janice Rogers Brown to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. As the League of Conservation Voters complained, “Brown has demonstrated a far-reaching hostility to the idea of regulating private interests for the public good . . . Acceptance of her activist positions would threaten some of the past century’s most basic health and environmental protections.” Brown was eventually confirmed after a two-year Democratic filibuster by a near party-line vote, meaning that the League of Conservation Voters’ scoring also fell on party lines.
But there’s a surprise ending here. In her two rulings to date on environmental issues before the D.C. Circuit, Brown sided with unanimous opinions of Clinton appointees in delivering sweeping victories to the environmentalist position on two major Clean Air Act cases, and against the Bush administration that appointed her (South Coast Air Quality Management District v. EPA, 2006, and New Jersey v. EPA, 2008). Has the League of Conservation Voters gone back and rescored this vote since they were plainly wrong about Brown?
If judicial philosophy is a worry to the League of Conservation Voters, moreover, why pick the Brown confirmation vote to score, rather than the Supreme Court confirmation vote that same year of John Roberts? Not only was Roberts heading for the top position on the highest court, he had challenged the constitutionality of the Endangered Species Act in a dissenting opinion where he spoke of a “hapless toad” in California. But 22 Democratic senators voted to confirm Roberts, versus only one for Brown—scoring the more significant Roberts vote instead would have lowered more Democratic scores. Scoring the Brown vote made Republican moderates like Maine’s Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe look bad, never mind erstwhile cap and trade supporters Graham and John McCain.
But the final reason the League of Conservation Voters decided to score the Brown vote rather than the Roberts vote is that the activist left targeted Brown for defeat because she is an African American, and the left is terrified of conservative minorities in prominent positions. The entire hive of leftist groups from the NAACP, NOW, People for the American Way, and even the National Council of Jewish Women opposed Brown’s nomination. The League of Conservation Voters could be counted upon to take one for the team because that’s how they roll. Other left coalition-pleasing but environmentally dubious scoring items include opposing free trade agreements and supporting low-income energy assistance so poor people can use more fossil fuels. The final irony for the greens is that had John McCain (who received zeroes on League of Conservation Voters scorecards in 2007 and 2008) been elected president instead of Obama (who almost always scored perfectly for the League of Conservation Voters—when he was around to cast a Senate vote), we’d likely have a cap and trade bill in place right now, as McCain would have made it a higher priority than health care reform. He had co-sponsored earlier cap and trade proposals with Senator Joe Lieberman.
In other words, the “nonpartisan” League of Conservation Voters is to the Democratic party what the “nonpartisan” National Rifle Association is to the Republican party—a reliable wingman. The only asymmetry is that so many people are fooled by it, starting with the greens themselves.
Steven F. Hayward is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the forthcoming Almanac of Environmental Trends.