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Enviros Must Modify Strategy as GOP Solidifies Power

November 4, 2004

Alex Kaplun
Greenwire reporter

Having invested huge amounts of financial and political capital in John Kerry’s (D) failed bid for the White House, mainstream environmental groups now face the prospect of overhauling their message and political strategy if they hope to have a voice in the Republican-controlled policymaking over the next few years, political observers said yesterday.

For well over a year, many of the nation’s largest environmental groups — led by the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters — have made the defeat of President Bush a top priority, and in doing so have widened the gulf between the mainstream environmental movement and much of the the Republican Party.

Yet as the elections drew closer it became increasingly clear that the environment would be a non-issue in all but a few states, and while environmentalists had successfully defined their position as anti-Bush, they failed to persuade enough voters to abandon the president who campaigned and won on issues of terrorism, national security and morality.

Now, faced with another four years of a Bush presidency and a Congress tilted even more to the GOP, some say that the only way environmentalists can retain any lobbying clout in Washington is if they attempt to mend fences and reach compromises with the party they so strongly campaigned against.

"The environmental community is a little shellshocked — they did not see this coming, they did not expect the president to win by the margin that he did and for Republicans to add as many seats in Congress as they did," said Jim DiPeso, policy director of the nonprofit group Republicans for Environmental Protection. "The political atmosphere in Washington, D.C., is going to be very hostile for mainstream environmental groups."

But officials from several of the largest groups, while acknowledging a tough loss, said the election’s outcome in no way reflects a need for major soul searching or a shift in political strategy. "The presidential election did not go our way last night," said League of Conservation Voters President Deb Callahan. "That said, the environmental community [was] not the candidate. We did our job."

A spokeswoman for the Sierra Club declined to comment, saying that the group was not yet prepared to discuss the results of the election.

Roger Schlickeisen, director of the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, said the Kerry’s loss does not reflect badly on environmentalists, but simply demonstrates that virtually no issues were able to breakthrough campaign rhetoric that was dominated by concerns over terrorism.

"I don’t think we or others in the community that I’ve associated with think there was anything wrong with our message," Shlickeisen said. "9-11 overwhelmed everything."

But other environmentalists are bracing for four years in which they may be largely tuned out by the White House and leaders in Congress. National Resource Defense Council President John Adams, in a letter to the group’s supporters, wrote that environmentally minded voters had successfully checked some of the Bush administration’s most controversial plans. But he said NRDC and others must brace for an escalation in the White House efforts to overhaul numerous existing laws.

"Prepare yourself," the letter said. "Tomorrow the battle will be joined. And we must be ready."

Adams’ letter further indicated that NRDC plans to employ much of the same strategy as it did during Bush’s first four years — stalling proposed regulatory changes through litigation and massive public relations campaigns to sway public opinion against the administration.

But Terry Anderson, executive director of the free market-based Property and Environment Research Center, said more of the same strategies from mainstream groups could backfire on environmentalists. Instead, Anderson said, environmental organizations should learn by the example of many other interest groups by seeking compromises with political opponents both inside and outside of government.

"[Environmental groups] see environmental policy as, ‘When we have control we are going to preserve it all, and when we lose control we are going to fight those who want to destroy it all,’" Anderson said. "I don’t think that’s going to work anymore."

One industry lobbyist said the environmentalists may succeed in striking deals with the White House but only if they are willing to embrace some of the market-based approaches on pollution reductions favored by the administration.

"I know [Bush] is capable of conciliatory leadership," said the lobbyist, Scott Segal of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council. "I hope that there is fatigue with the excessive partisanship as it relates to the environment and maybe we can have greater dialogue. Maybe I’m being unrealistic. But I also get a sense that people are a little tired of arguing with each other so viciously."

Still, questions remain as to whether the largest environmental groups — which are often characterized as less compromising than other interest groups — are willing to change their approach.

LCV’s Callahan said her organization and its partners did an effective job appealing to voters, citing the organization’s apparent success in several congressional races.

Callahan specifically pointed to Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar’s (D) election to the Senate as an example of the environmentalists’ message resonating with voters. Perhaps, no other candidate made the environment as significant a part of his campaign as Salazar, who often campaigned on preserving public lands and holding polluters accountable. Salazar narrowly defeated Coors Brewing Co. executive Pete Coors — a well-funded candidate but also a newcomer to the political arena. Out of the nine competitive Senate races nationwide, Colorado was the only one where Democrats emerged victorious.

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