Hobby Lobby, Climate Change, and the GOP’s Women Problem

More than 200 women brought their children to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to urge lawmakers to clean up the air pollution that causes climate change. The event was called a “Play-in for Climate Action”—you can’t expect all those kids to stay still for a traditional “sit-in”—and included a press conference with Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

Around the same time, GOP lawmakers in the House were busy drafting a bill that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from doing the very thing those mothers want: clean up carbon pollution from power plants so their children have a better future.

Welcome to the latest battle in the Tea Party’s war on women. This conflict isn’t getting as much attention as the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling, but it could play a significant role in who wins and loses the midterm elections.

Republican and Democratic candidates have already worked the Hobby Lobby case into stump speeches, fundraising appeals, and attack ads. Yet few people will vote on the Hobby Lobby ruling alone. Most voters cast ballots based on a cluster of issues that matter most to them.

One negative story about a Tea Party position that hurts women would not turn the midterm tide. But these days, the stories are mounting. GOP candidates are alienating women voters on a host of issues, from reproductive health to equal pay to climate change.

When did climate change become a women’s issue? When women made it clear they care deeply about it. Women in battleground states understand (by a margin of 72 percent to 19 percent) that we have a moral obligation to future generations to make the air safer to breathe and the climate more stable. Climate change increases smog and contributes to asthma attacks and other respiratory problems. If we don’t act now, the next generation will pay a steep price, and most women want children to inherit a brighter future, not one plagued by unchecked climate hazards.

And yet nearly every single Republican candidate running for office in the past few years—from the presidential level on down—has ignored, denied, or belittled the threat of climate change.  Right now, GOP leaders are attacking the EPA’s new “Clean Power Plan.” This plan would unleash wind and solar power, boost energy and cost savings, and finally hold power plants accountable for the enormous amounts of carbon pollution they spew into our air.

Blocking this kind of climate action isn’t just bad policy; it’s bad politics.

Women are one of the emerging voting blocs that will matter most in this election, along with Latinos and young people. Many female voters are likely to view Tea Party stance on climate change as yet another position that turns them off.

Republicans can’t afford that. In the 2012 presidential race, women favored the Democratic ticket by 11 percentage points.  Unmarried women voted for President Obama over Governor Romney by 67 percent. Those single women, it turns out, could be the soccer moms of this election—top Democratic strategists are already trying to appeal to them.

Some Republicans may be listening to what women want. Over the past few months, GOP leaders have hedged their climate bets; they have moved from outright denial to modest demurral. Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Governor Rick Scott (R-FL), and Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio (R-FL) have all said they don’t have the scientific background to assess the risks of climate change. This hardly constitutes a bold approach to a matter of national security, but it does suggest some Republicans realize that climate denunciation is a losing position.

Candidates who stand for climate action, meanwhile, can cast themselves as champions of clean air, public health, good jobs, and a brighter future for our children—a set of issues that appeal to many women voters.



Cantor Can’t

Eric Cantor went down in a surprise defeat Tuesday night to a tea party unknown, David Brat, upsetting the Congressional order. It’s hard to think of someone more deserving of this fate, but not for the reasons he suffered it.  His lifetime environmental score of 4% should earn him scorn but he may be about to be replaced with a representative who might proudly sport a zero rating.

What are the lessons to be learned from this race? For the Republican Party, the erroneous and overlearned response could well be the need to bow even further to the extremism of the tea party movement. For the environment this would mean more denialism about the existence of climate change in the face of overwhelming evidence, instead of coming to the table for solutions.

Overreaction by the GOP would be especially curious in light of the string of primary victories by so-called establishment Republicans in Senate races in places like Kentucky, Texas and South Carolina.  If the tea party’s wins from 2010 were considered to be episode one in this series, then this year’s episode two would definitely be called, “The Establishment Strikes Back.”

Yet overreaction could well be the order of the day.  For now safely perched in a politically safe and weirdly gerrymandered House majority, the far right wing of the Republican party continues to push for an extreme agenda that many establishment Republicans believe hampers their ability to win control of the White House and the Senate.  Frankly, allowing more progressive views on the environmental matters within the party would be the smartest path forward, and was the case before the rise of the tea party.  But I’m certainly not arguing that Cantor would have done better in the race if he had been better on the environment.  I’m just saying for establishment Republicans to conclude that they should not be better on the environment generally as a result of this race would be a serious error.

So what is the difference between tea party and the GOP establishment these days? Not much on policy, at least not since almost every moderate Republican member of Congress has given up or been driven out of the party. It seems to be mostly style, in the sense of an insistence by one side on a purity of position and a staunch resistance to working with others to get things done.  Still it makes a big difference to be at least reasonable and not radical. Or as Peter King, who’s no liberal, observed about Cantor’s defeat, “I don’t know where we go now as a party.  I’m very concerned that we may go all the way to the right, following Ted Cruz and the shutdown congressman, and marginalizing us as a responsible governing party.”

Cantor’s defeat can mostly be understood as an inattentive effort by a politician whose ambitions lay elsewhere.  If there was a policy issue that decided this race, it may have been immigration, where Cantor’s opponent accused him of supporting “amnesty” for his work on a Republican version of reform.  The party has struggled to construct a viable national strategy to attract the support of minorities and Latinos in particular, but a National Republican Committee proposal to do that has not taken hold. The same problem persists for the party among young people and women.

Yet the party continues to cut itself off from these groups with its policy agenda, including hostility to action on one of the most important issues of the day – clean air and climate change. Despite reams of polling data proving the support among these demographic groups for action on climate change, the tea party has maintained its choke hold on this issue.

Cantor can’t be the template for the GOP establishment if they want to reshape their national politics.  Instead of learning the wrong lesson about this race, they should master the proof contained in this polling. And it wouldn’t hurt for them to reexamine the irrefutable scientific proof behind climate change at the same time.

2013 In Review: It Could Have Been Worse

So 2013 is nearly done.  On the political scene it’s easy to hope that the door gives the year a good whack on the way out.  But as we take a final look back on the environmental front, there’s a lot for which we should be grateful– especially if you take into consideration the things that didn’t get worse.

The Obama administration should be congratulated for the big step it took last summer in its commitment to fight climate change. Following on the heels of the landmark 2012 rule by the Obama administration to require automakers to vastly increase the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks, President Obama announced his commitment to take further action on climate change and avoid, as the President put it, condemning “future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.” A particularly significant feature of the President’s climate action plan is its stated goal to establish carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants. If done right, these standards could have an enormously positive impact on public health and would be a momentous victory in the fight to control climate change.

Another important climate item in 2013 was something that didn’t happen. Namely, the Obama administration did not approve TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. While it remains to be seen whether the administration will eventually approve the counterproductive project, the President’s skepticism concerning the benefits of the pipeline and his commitment to evaluate its contribution of carbon to the atmosphere provides hope that the administration will scrap the misbegotten proposal altogether in favor of a cleaner energy future for America.

Also worthy of attention are the many staffing changes made in highly influential energy and environmental positions within the administration. Lisa Jackson left her post as EPA Administrator with an exceptional list of accomplishments, including adoption of air toxics standards that will save thousands of American lives every year. The Obama administration’s decision to replace Jackson with the highly capable Gina McCarthy serves as a sign of the administration’s continued commitment to climate and other crucial environmental protections.  A further proof of this continued commitment was demonstrated as the brilliant Dr. Stephen Chu was replaced at the Department of Energy by veteran climate policy leader and energy expert, Dr. Ernest Moniz.

Heather Zichal, former senior energy and climate adviser to the White House, departed too after the President’s unveiled his groundbreaking climate action plan.  Zichal helped orchestrate the development of this plan and should also be credited for the critical role she played in securing the vehicle fuel economy standards. Also announcing her departure was Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, who can be proud of her accomplishments such as oversight of the creation of the first comprehensive National Ocean Policy.

The biggest item on the arrival side of White House staffing news is the addition of John Podesta, former Chief of Staff to President Clinton and previously a board member of the NRDC Action Fund. Podesta will be serving as senior counsel to president Obama and, considering his work in making climate change one of the top priorities of the think tank he founded after leaving the Clinton Administration, his return to the White House is an exciting prospect for the administration’s increased activity on climate change in the coming year.

Any review of 2013 would be remiss if it failed to discuss Congressional activity, or lack thereof.  There was at least a bipartisan budget deal, but otherwise Congress remained largely ineffectual. This meant that progress on the environment was left almost entirely up to action by the executive branch even as the administration fended off persistent attacks by climate deniers in Congress.

Hope persists that an eventual legislative agreement can be reached to update the federal law (the Toxics Substances Control Act, or TSCA) that regulates chemicals used in commercial and consumer products, but negotiations on a bill have stalled over how to set clear standards and deadlines that would actually make the law better than what exists now. Still, a good day in Congress is sometimes defined as doing no harm, and so it was good that bad environmental laws were kept off the President’s desk, and sneak attacks on the environment through unrelated provisions in other bills (termed “riders”) were mostly avoided.

Another topic that warrants discussion is the ongoing internal debate within the national Republican party. Following the party’s defeat in the last Presidential election, the Republican National Committee commissioned an assessment of the root causes of their underperformance. This report emphasized the party’s need to reach out to minorities, to alter their stance and messaging on immigration, and to pay greater attention to generational issues in order to remain relevant and competitive in elections moving forward.

Despite these recommendations, the Republican Party has retained a reputation as ideologically exclusive and controlled by extremists. This fall’s extended government shutdown is a perfect example of the Republicans’ increased isolation from mainstream opinion, as most Americans held an unfavorable view of the shutdown because it hampered the ability of federal agencies like the EPA to do their jobs protecting us.

The party’s unfortunate fate when it’s outside the political mainstream was evident in state races this past fall. In Virginia, the more conservative a Republican candidate for statewide office was, the worse he performed in his election – and Ken Cuccinelli’s views on climate change in particular were used to help define him as an extremist. Alternatively, New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie took a more reasonable stance on climate change  and other issues, and subsequently won re-election in a landslide in a “blue” state.

So the administration’s commitment to action on climate change and the possibility that more reasonable, bipartisan cooperation will return to Congress in not a bad place to start for 2014.  Certainly 2013 set a standard of performance that our leaders should be expected to exceed.  Here’s hoping they exceed it by a lot.


Is LePage Ready to Run Clean?

Paul LePage, the governor of Maine, doesn’t seem to get it when it comes to climate change. Despite Maine voters’ clear support for reducing carbon pollution and acting to address climate change, LePage reliably blocks action and denies the gravity of the climate challenge.

LePage’s latest dumbfounding bit of denial was to focus on what he believes is the positive side of climate change. Speaking at a conference, he said,

“Everybody looks at the negative effects of global warming, but with the ice melting, the Northern Passage has opened up. So maybe, instead of being at the end of the pipeline, we’re now at the beginning of a new pipeline.”

While I am certainly a glass-half-full person, climate change is hardly an appropriate place for a nonchalant focus on one person’s perception of a silver lining. In Maine, warmer waters, ocean acidification and extreme weather are threatening clam populations and sea birds. Sea level rise and extreme weather events threaten the state’s coastline. LePage’s certainty on the upside of global warming is also interesting considering his previous comments that climate change is a “hoax” and a “scam” with the science unsettled. If the impacts of a warming world are so apparent in one instance, why not in the others?

I can only hope that LePage’s clumsy climate comments are a sign that he is joining the vast majority of Americans in accepting the truth of climate change science. Certainly many in his own political party, including 61% of non-Tea Party Republicans, accept the science. Perhaps LePage’s shift from denier to opportunist is a sign that he’s understanding his constituents’ views better. After all, polling conducted for the NRDC Action Fund found that 83% of Mainers wanted a reduction in industrial carbon pollution.

We will soon have a chance to see what Mainers think of LePage’s views (and actions) when it comes to addressing climate change and promoting (or obstructing) clean energy. LePage is up for reelection in November 2014 and will face off against Rep. Mike Michaud, a strong supporter of clean energy and climate action. In contrast to his opponent, Michaud says “Any potential benefit of allowing climate change to continue unaddressed is far outweighed by the danger of our failure to act.”

Michaud’s gotten the message that running clean works. Will LePage?


Lessons from Virginia

As Virginians await the final results of this year’s election, one fact has emerged as clear.  The more extreme – or less mainstream – the Republican candidate for statewide office was, the worse he performed at the polls.

This fact can be simply established by listing the three main Republican candidates’ ideological stances and comparing it to their popular vote tally.  The most extreme of the candidates was Lieutenant Governor nominee E.W. Jackson, who was so extreme the other candidates didn’t want to mention him during their campaigns and balked at being associated with him.  He came in third on the list with 44.54 percent of the vote.  The least extreme candidate, Mark Obenshain for Attorney General, did the best (49.88 percent of the vote) and trails in a race so close that a recount is almost certain.

That oddly puts Ken Cuccinelli in the middle of the pack where extremism is concerned.  Yes that’s right, the darling of the Virginia tea party who attracted so much national attention for his far right views ranked second in extremism behind Jackson on a slate chosen at a convention dominated by activists.  His vote total was also middling at 45.23 percent of the vote, which was much closer than many thought it would be, but a poor enough showing that the race was decided before the end of the night.

There has been much speculation about the role that overarching issues such as the government shutdown or the health care launch may have played in the race for governor.  But the effect on the party preference of voters of any of these issues would have been felt up and down the ticket and therefore should not have altered the relative standings of the candidates.  So what did?

Let’s consider the margin that ended up separating Obenshain and Cuccinelli.  Terry McAuliffe did an effective job of framing Cuccinelli as the candidate that was out of step with the mainstream values of Virginia.   At least in Northern Virginia, three of the issues he used to support this “out-of-step” claim were woman’s issues, gun control, and the environment, the latter of which focused on Cuccinelli’s role as a climate change denier.    Whatever the importance of these issues to voters when taken individually, they were put together with the purpose of documenting the larger point that Cuccinelli was an extremist in the grip of far right ideology.

And Cuccinelli was guilty as charged on climate change.  He not only denied humans were contributing to climate change, but also opposed any actions to curb it.  What’s more, as attorney general he attacked the veracity of climate sciences research conducted at the University of Virginia for purely political reasons, even though the scientists had been independently cleared of any wrong doing.  Although these were favorable stances with his tea party base, they were definitely at odds with the popular opinion in Virginia, where 77 percent of citizens agree that past warming has been caused by humans and an overwhelming majority support actions on climate change (for example, 81 percent support reducing greenhouse gases from power plants).

In comparison, Obenshain consciously kept his distance from the tea party froth around Jackson and Cuccinelli, emphasizing an independent and bipartisan image in his campaign ads.  This is not to say that he is a moderate who supports real action on climate change – he’s not.  It only means that he knew better than to allow his opponent, Mark Herring, to easily use this issue or others to paint him into the same corner as the rest of the ticket.

The closer–than-expected result in the governor’s race has left unresolved the dispute between tea party Republicans and mainstream Republicans in the state and elsewhere.  The tea party feels their candidate was abandoned and could have won with more help, and the establishment believes they would not have needed so much help if the party had nominated a better positioned Republican, such as Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling.  Of these two views, the establishment would seem to have the stronger argument – even if the race could have been won (which isn’t certain), it would have required diversion of scarce resources from other races where they were needed.  Wouldn’t it have been better not to have made that race so difficult to begin with?

The lesson for the Republican Party for their image in Virginia and elsewhere is simple.  Playing to the base comes at a price, as it often gets you out of step with a majority of the voters on a rack of important issues, including climate change.  This year in Virginia, the price of catering to the party base may have been more than the Republicans could afford.