The GOP's Big Green Gamble

In California, ground zero for support of government’s role in saving the planet, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina are betting on a climate change backlash in 2010.

AP Photo (2)

Could a political backlash against climate change legislation develop in, of all places, California?

Two wealthy, first-time political candidates in 2010 statewide races—eBay chief-turned-gubernatorial contender Meg Whitman and Hewlett Packard CEO-turned-U.S. Senate challenger Carly Fiorina—are betting on it.

Whitman is showcasing a promise to put a one-year moratorium on regulations stemming from a landmark 2006 law, strongly backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, that requires the state to roll back greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Fiorina has been hammering federal cap-and-trade legislation sponsored by the incumbent she’s challenging, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.

The reaction of most of California’s political establishment to the Whitman-Fiorina strategy? They’re nuts.

In this, the politically ambitious Silicon Valley Republicans are making perhaps the biggest, most consequential political gamble of anyone in the country.

Conventional wisdom says the Golden State is far too green for such a strategy to work. Big majorities of California voters—be they Democrats, independents, or Republicans—have long favored aggressive government intervention to save the planet, including tough mandates on carbon emissions and renewable energy mandates. AB 32, the law Whitman wants to suspend, is nearly as popular as free cerveza.

But Whitman, Fiorina and the strategists advising them are wagering that the recession and job loss in the state are deep enough (the 12.5 percent unemployment rate, a post-war record, is among the highest in the country) to unsettle public opinion here. For the next few years, they argue, even California’s green-minded voters will be more interested in economic repair than anything else.

If voters agree with this assessment, next year’s contests for governor and senator California could be seen as a moment when the political winds on climate change shifted, turning the debate away from the broad question of whether climate change is a threat and towards more nettlesome controversies over the costs of doing something about it.

“The economy has catapulted jobs to the top of the political issue food chain,” says Rob Stutzman, a leading Republican strategist here who previously worked for Schwarzenegger and now advises Whitman. “The intensity of support for new environmental fees and taxes is waning in the face of the real human toll this recession is having.”

The reaction of most of California’s political establishment to the Whitman-Fiorina strategy? It’s nuts.

The policy objections—that Whitman and Fiorina are offering a false choice, and that environmental regulation and economic growth can go together—are strong. But the political objections to this strategy have been even stronger, with Whitman and Fiorina’s push against climate legislation widely dismissed as a foolish mistake by political rookies.

Whitman, who has been running since February (Fiorina only became a candidate this fall), has taken the brunt of the criticism. Veteran journalists Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine called the ex-eBay chief’s turn on AB 32 “pretty dumb political strategy” that must have been suggested by “some highly-paid, airhead adviser.” Democrats predictably piled on, and even Schwarzenegger took a shot at his fellow Republican, suggesting Whitman’s stance was merely political posturing. “I’m sure she doesn’t want to be counted as one of those Republicans who would move us back to the Stone Age,” the governor said.

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These critics inevitably cite polling on environmental issues. A survey released this summer by the Public Policy Institute of California found that three in four California voters believe that climate change poses a serious threat to the state’s economy and quality of life. But surveys, when examined more closely, suggest that Whitman and Fiorina’s strategy, whatever its merits or defects as policy, may have some chance of succeeding politically.

The same PPIC survey that shows Californians taking climate change seriously also shows that Californians are increasingly divided on specific actions to tackle the problem. Support for AB 32 has declined 12 points since the recession began (though the support still remains high at 66 percent). Residents are nearly evenly divided on a carbon tax and the cap-and-trade legislation that has been a target of Fiorina.

And more Californians are open to a delay in tackling climate change. In July 2008, 57 percent of California residents in a PPIC survey said the government should take action right away to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In this year’s poll, that number had declined to 48 percent; forty-six percent said the government should wait until the economy and state budget improve. Few Californians expect such good news soon. In a Field Poll released earlier this year, 96 percent of voters surveyed describe California as being in bad economy times and only 29 percent expected improvement over the next 12 months.

Whitman and Fiorina’s attacks on climate legislation—let’s wait at least until the economy is better—hew closely to this polling. Whitman has been more effective and subtle in delivering the message, emphasizing that she merely wants to delay AB 32 regulations to give the economy a chance to recover and the state more time to get its regulations right.

“A moratorium now on AB 32 would give us an opportunity to coordinate our environmental efforts with Washington,” Whitman wrote this fall in the San Jose Mercury News. “And if we do it right, it might save California businesses time and money. This is surely preferable to even more jobs fleeing our state.”

Fiorina, who joined the Senate race only a month ago, has been less sure-footed. Visiting with reporters in Washington last month, she forcefully talked about the need to “examine the science on an ongoing basis,” thereby convincing some journalists that she was questioning the existence of climate. (She wasn’t. Fiorina also told reporters that global warming is “serious” and called for more talks with China on curbing greenhouse gases.

If Fiorina and Whitman avoid similar mistakes, and if public opinion trends and the bad economy persist, the two first-time candidates will look prescient, and may catch a political wave.

The strategy is somewhat risky; if the economy rebounds along with support for immediate action on climate change, their opponents will find this an easy avenue for attacks. But the strategy may not be as adventurous as it seems. After all, Schwarzenegger’s environmental policies have remained popular even as his approval rating has fallen below 30 percent, because of frustrations over Schwarzenegger handling of the economy and the budget. Despite their pride in the state’s environmental record, Californians are deeply dissatisfied with life here; only 14 percent say the state is going in the right direction.

Whitman and Fiorina also may be benefit from the change in the national context. In the age of Bush, Californians who advocated for action in climate change had the advantage of arguing against an unpopular national Republican administration that didn’t seem to believe in science. This debate often boiled down to a contest between “Californians Who Believe in Science” and “Texans Who Don’t Cotton to Science” and was easy to win.

But now California, by being the first state to take action, is also the first state to produce the kind of specific solutions—most notably, new regulations on big-screen, energy-consuming TVs—that make juicy targets for populist attacks.

These are politically perilous times for those who wish to heal the planet. If economic arguments against climate change legislation prove effective in California, they will work anywhere.

Joe Mathews is a journalist, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Times. He previously served as Justice Department reporter for the Wall Street Journal and as a city desk reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He is the author of The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy.