John Leo

The result is that on every level, the party with the most social conservatives contains the fewest environmentalists. In Congress, the most notable Republican effort in this field is attaching anti-environmental riders to appropriations bills. Martha Marks, head of REP America, refers to herself as "the president of what a few jokers have called the world's funniest oxymoron: Republicans for Environmental Protection."

The absence of a meaningful environmental constituency explains why it was so easy for the new administration to back off the Kyoto agreement and support drilling for oil in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge and (ominously) other wilderness areas. The undermining of Christine Whitman as head of the Environmental Protection Agency apparently began early. Word came that she was known around the White House as "Brownie," a sarcastic reference to President Clinton's EPA chief, Carol Browner, who was predictably unpopular among many big-name Republicans. Is this a show of contempt for Whitman, her agency, or both?

Republican anti-environmentalism dates only from the Reagan years. As opinion rose against big government and heavy regulation, particularly in the West, environmental protection was demonized as a symbol of Washington's overbearing power. By the time of Newt Gingrich's poll-tested Contract With America, anti-environmentalism was part of the Republican canon. Environmental historian Willam Cronon writes that the contract "came to grief in good measure because most Americans continue to believe that protecting the environment is a good thing." Newt now thinks so too, and has admitted that Republicans were "malpositioned" on the environment.

George W. Bush is probably too moderate a man to emerge as a version of the old anti-environmental Newt. But even in narrow partisan terms, the Republicans should be careful here. Wirthlin Worldwide, a polling firm associated with Republican causes, reports that "two out of three Americans say we need to protect the environment no matter what it costs."

In 1999, Zogby International, another pollster heavily used by the GOP, surveyed probable Republican primary voters in five key states and found about as much support for "protect the environment" (92 percent) as "encourage family values" (93 percent). And an Environmental Defense Fund poll says that young adults (18 to 25) are "remarkably skeptical" about environmental progress over the past 30 years, with 62 percent believing that conditions are now worse than in 1970.

Republicans may be counting on the old rule of thumb: Everybody supports the environment in polls, but it's nobody's primary concern in the voting booth. But if I were running the party, I don't think I would tie myself closely to the losing side of a broad national argument.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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