This morning’s Washington Post has an op-ed by former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), entitled “Can the party of Reagan accept the science of climate change?”. For those of you who have never heard of Boehlert, he’s one of a dying breed of Republicans that used to be common this country – sane, reasonable, constructive, not “angry,” open to facts and science, even (gasp!) pro-environment. I know, what a concept. Today, however, with the defeat in the 2010 elections of Boehlert-style Republicans like Mike Castle (voted for “cap and trade”, generally solid ratings from the League of Conservation Voters) of Delaware by the lunatic fringe of Christine O’Donnell and others we used to label as “tin foil hat,” “John Birch Society,” etc., the Republican Party essentially has been purged. Thus, as Boehlert writes in his op-ed:
National Journal reported last month that 19 of the 20 serious GOP Senate challengers declared that the science of climate change is either inconclusive or flat-out wrong. Many newly elected Republican House members take that position. It is a stance that defies the findings of our country’s National Academy of Sciences, national scientific academies from around the world and 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists.
Over the past few months, I had the opportunity to research (for the NRDC Action Fund) a series of articles on about 40 Congressional races around the country (see here for instance), in each of which there was a strong environmental “champion” running against an anti-environmental “climate change skeptic” or even outright “denier.” Watching their YouTube videos, reading their Facebook and Twitter pages, perusing their websites was a scary and surreal experience.
What made it particularly surreal for me – and this is where I can relate to Sherwood Boehlert – is the fact that I started out in the late 1970s (seems like an eternity ago now) in Connecticut as a Teenage Republican (TAR). That was back in the days when Sherwood Boehlert Republicans – broadly speaking, coming from a strain that included Teddy Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, and even Richard Nixon when it comes to science and the environment – were the norm. However, with the rise of the “Moral Majority,” “neoconservatism,” and a much harder-edged “conservatism” in general, that was fast changing. I realized that almost immediately with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, which is why I cast my first vote for president for the independent, liberal “Rockefeller Republican”, John Anderson. In my view then and now, the rise of the Reagan Republican Party meant that one of our great political parties had gone off the deep end. Since then, it’s gotten even worse. Today, looking at the lunatics who have taken over the GOP, I yearn for the halcion days of Reagan and George HW Bush. Sadly, those days are long gone, not likely ever to return.
This is where I fundamentally disagree with Sherwood Boehlert, who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with (Boehlert is on the board of the NRDC Action Fund), and who I believe is a good and honorable man. However, I also believe that Boehlert is fundamentally misguided in his belief that pleading with his beloved Republican Party to return to sanity and science will have any impact whatsoever. Not that Boehlert is incorrect when he writes, “My fellow Republicans should understand that wholesale, ideologically based or special-interest-driven rejection of science is bad policy. And that in the long run, it’s also bad politics.” Yes, they should. But they don’t, and they won’t. Instead, they have gone completely off the deep end into know-nothing, denialist la-la land.
Why have Republicans gone completely haywire since the days of Sherwood Boehlert, Mike Castle, Nelson Rockefeller, Gerald Ford et al? A confluence of factors: districts drawn in a way that puts tremendous pressure on Republicans to protect their “right flanks” politically, and not to worry about the “center” much at all; enormous campaign contributions from the polluters, mostly to Republicans; a massive anti-science disinformation campaign funded by those same polluters; a general decline of scientific literacy and respect for scientists in this country; outright demagoguery on the part of Republicans, some of whom know better and some of whom don’t; lack of strong leadership on the part of Democrats, many of whom are also funded by corporate interests, including fossil fuel companies; a media that has utterly failed to do its job when it comes to energy and environmental issues (or almost any other issue, for that matter); etc.
The bottom line is that today’s Republican Party is not your grandfather’s, or even your father’s – and certainly not Sherwood Boehlert’s – Republican Party. Not that the Democratic Party is perfect, far from it! In fact, it’s times like these when I think back to Ralph Nader’s observation that both Republicans and Democrats were, de facto, wholly owned subsidiaries of corporate America. Still, I’d argue that there’s a qualitative difference between a Republican Party filled with people who outright deny overwhelming scientific evidence, and a Democratic Party where those views would put you on the fringes. Look at the 9th CD here in Virginia, where a strongly pro-coal — but also a scientifically literate — Democrat, Rick Boucher, just lost to a guy who claims, 100% falsely of course, that “many scientists do not even believe [global warming] is happening.” Utter insanity. Yet, this is where we’re going in this country, at least with one of our major political parties, and all the pleading/shaming/reasoning by good men like Sherwood Boehlert isn’t going to change that fact.
P.S. One quibble with Rep. Boehlert on the Reagan who supposedly “embraced scientific understanding of the environment and pollution.” Remember Reagan’s Interior Secretary James Watt, described as “one of the two most ‘intensely controversial and blatantly anti-environmental political appointees’ in American history?” Watt also testified to Congress, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns, whatever it is we have to manage with a skill to leave the resources needed for future generations.” Anyway, let’s just ditch the notion that the Reagan Administration was a time of Republican enlightenment on the environment. Having said that, there’s no doubt that today is a lot worse, with the GOP having been taken over by the James Watts of the world. Ugh.