Politics & Policy

Cooler Heads in the GOP

McCain and Republicans craft an environmental platform — and tempers don't flare.

Minneapolis – Crafting a platform that marries John McCain to the Republican base on environmental policy is a little like filing a lawsuit against yourself in which you only get to write one brief. By the time you’re done, you’ve scratched through so many lines and penciled in so many revisions that the document is barely legible. I wish I could show you my copy of the energy section of the 2008 Republican Platform’s working draft. You wouldn’t be able to read it, but you’d see what I mean.

The first thing that’s scratched out is “Global Warming and” at the top of a section that used to read “Global Warming and Environmental Protection.” The energy subcommittee — whose task is to draft energy- and environmental-policy language of which the full Republican Platform Committee can approve — decided to strike the phrase “global warming” anywhere it appeared in the document, either replacing it with the more neutral “climate change,” or removing it altogether.

The global warming vs. climate change debate was part of the effort to find a common ground between McCain, who believes that warming is an urgent threat that requires an aggressive reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, and Republicans who are skeptical of such claims. The substitution was “a good compromise,” a delegate on the subcommittee told me later, “because some people view those terms interchangeably, and some don’t.” The don’ts think the term “global warming” carries too much political baggage.

The don’ts had other problems with the working draft. None of them was happy with the first paragraph of the global-warming climate-change section, particularly the line, “Increased atmospheric carbon has a warming effect on the earth.” Nor did they think the paragraph was specific enough when it called for “measured and reasonable steps today” to mitigate the consequences of climate change.

The chair and co-chair of the subcommittee told the delegates with the biggest concerns to work together on alternative language rather than file a bunch of separate amendments. “Essentially, we re-wrote the first paragraph,” says the delegate I talked to. “We decided to strike the whole thing and come up with something better.”

The new version dropped the sentence that attributed warming to human activity. It also added a line after “measured and reasonable steps” that stated, “Any policies should be global in nature, based on sound science and technology, and should not harm the economy.”

The McCain campaign had representatives at Tuesday’s subcommittee meeting, and subcommittee co-chair Trey Grayson of Kentucky says the campaign worked with the subcommittee on these changes. “For us, we wanted to create a policy that was Republican and didn’t constrain or put McCain in a bad position,” Grayson says.

Aware of the dysfunctional psychodrama in Denver and the opportunities it presents, Republicans at this year’s Platform Committee meetings are striving to stay disciplined and minimize their differences with McCain. And though there were a few awkward moments during yesterday’s energy debates, it could have been worse. Across the hall, the national-security subcommittee was making headlines when some members tried to put language opposing “comprehensive immigration reform” — a clear reference to McCain’s failed immigration plan — into the platform. Fox News described the debate as “heated.” The word “xenophobic” got tossed around.

Nothing like that happened in the energy subcommittee, even though it could have. For instance, things might have gotten ugly if the subcommittee had tried to close the door on cap-and-trade legislation, which McCain regrettably supports. The working draft purposefully left McCain enough room to continue his support for an artificial ceiling on carbon emissions. The subcommittee improved the working draft by specifying that any proposals “should not harm the economy,” but it did not add anything that explicitly precludes McCain from supporting cap-and-trade. McCain is still free to argue that a cap-and-trade regime wouldn’t inhibit economic growth, and conservatives are still free to disagree.

On Wednesday, the full Platform Committee took up the energy section of the draft, and the energy subcommittee’s work paid off. Not only were there no amendments to oppose cap-and-trade explicitly, there were no amendments on climate change at all. By taking a heavy pen to the working draft, the subcommittee prevented a big fight over climate change from breaking out in the full committee, where it would have gotten a lot more press coverage. Better a messy draft than a messy split between the party and its candidate on the eve of the convention. 

– Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.

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