Stop Political Pandering on Pollution

Once upon a time, cleaning our environment was a bipartisan issue

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Conventional wisdom has it that all those politicians who are anti-EPA, anti-clean air, and anti doing anything about climate change (say what?) are taking those positions because it makes them more appealing to voters. For that matter, President Obama has pulled back smog rulings and been mum on climate change for most of his tenure for the same reason: electability. Americans don’t care about air pollution, the line goes, and they don’t value clean air.

But a fascinating new study, funded by the National Resources Defense Council, analyzed races by three members of Congress and found that in fact, a record of positions against clean air regulations actually hurt a candidate’s standing with swing voters and ticket splitters.

(MORE: Heroes of the Environment)

One lawmaker, Representative Betty Sutton of Ohio, voted to clean up toxic emissions from industrial boilers and incinerators (HR2250) — because that is the right thing to do for people’s health — and her standing among swing voters went up.

The organization Republicans for Environmental Protection celebrated another recent vote in the Senate, in favor of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, and gave special thanks to six Republicans who voted against Kentuckian Rand Paul’s effort to block the Good Neighbor Rule that would stop polluters on behalf of their downwind neighbors. And I’d like to give them a shout out too: Senators Lamar Alexander, Kelly Ayotte, Scott Brown, Mark Kirk, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. Alexander pulled off the liveliest line during a long debate when he complained that tourists didn’t come to Tennessee to see the Smoggy Mountains, for heaven’s sake, they came for the Smokeys. He didn’t want Kentucky’s foul pollution blowing his way any longer.

We have come to a strange pass, when it is cause for celebration that conservatives are favoring conservation. After all, the Clean Air Act was signed into law in 1970 by Republican President Nixon, and the 1990 amendment to strengthen it by Republican President Bush. President Nixon remarked that we were no freer to contaminate the air “than we are free to throw garbage into our neighbor’s yard.”

(MORE: How Global Warming Fell Off the National Agenda)

Republicans might consider reading the tea leaves in the last round of elections. Extremist positions are not finding a receptive audience; they might make good reality TV, but in the privacy of the voting booth, Americans return to pragmatic principles. Mitt Romney might want to consider cleaning up his position on pollution — and global warming, which is, after all, a result of air pollution. Romney is smart enough, and educated enough, to know better than to deny the harmful effects of pollution. He may find he is outsmarting himself — as might President Obama — by continuing to appear callous and uncaring about pollution.

Real people know that air pollution is bad for all living things. Only a politician would fight for a polluter’s right to pollute.