The Clinton administration sent its troops to the congressional districts of vulnerable Republican freshman in Congress to blast them on their environmental record. "Green" activists similarly conducted a media blitz attacking the "anti-environment" GOP.
Liberals have been successful at portraying the new Republican Congress as "planet pavers" who want to "roll back" environmental protection laws, all to satisfy polluting industrialists who contributed to the GOP's political coffers.
The Republicans, meanwhile, have been waging the environmental debate almost exclusively with regulatory "horror stories"-- tales of real Americans suffering under oppressive environmental laws.
These anecdotes work, but only to a point. For example, most Americans would react with anger to the story of Earl Miller, my own dry cleaner in Arlington, Va., who lost his family business after 30 years because he could not afford a new (and largely unnecessary) $40,000 machine required by the Environmental Protection Agency.
But Republicans have relied too heavily on such stories. As much as Americans want the government to stop harassing people, they fear (understandably) that if the "regulatory safety net" disappears, we would return to the days of billowing black smokestacks and burning rivers.
This is why the Republican message so far -- that we need to balance environmental protection with the demands of economic growth -- has fallen like a lead balloon. Many people are convinced the argument is just shorthand for rolling back environmental protections.
Even though environmental regulations cost the U.S. economy an incredible $171 billion annually, balancing this cost against a child's life is a losing proposition. Unless Republicans can show that their policies protect jobs, eliminate unfairness, and do a better job protecting the environment and public health than the big-government approach, environmental issues will continue to be their Achilles' heel.
The fact is, well intentioned liberal environmental policies can kill. For example, according to a Harvard University study, current regulatory policies cost 60,000 lives per year. Why? Because the government squanders huge sums of money guarding against minuscule risks -- the theoretical loss of life due to trace amounts of chemicals on fruits and vegetables, for example -- while it ignores much greater risks. Dr. John Graham of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis calls this "statistical murder."
The Superfund and property rights reforms before Congress provide excellent opportunities to improve the environment and save more lives. Under the hazardous waste "Superfund" cleanup program, created in 1980, only about 20 percent of the 1,374 sites on the list have been cleaned up. Lawmakers should let people know they want to accelerate cleanups that are now delayed because trial lawyers -- big allies of the White House -- soak up 21 percent of Superfund's money. More lives would be saved because of faster cleanups of the worst sites posing the most risk to Americans.
Similarly, Republicans should explain that protecting the rights of property owners can actually benefit threatened species. Right now, under the Endangered Species Act, regulators can financially ruin families by taking away their ability to use their land, without compensation. This is unfair and counterproductive. It creates an incentive for property owners to make sure no one finds out about endangered species that may live on their land. The bumper sticker "shoot, shovel, and shut up" tells the whole story.
Republicans must recognize that the American people legitimately expect freedom from harmful pollution. That doesn't mean they should embrace the environmentalist agenda, which opposes letting businesses find the best way to comply with environmental safeguards, and is hostile to free-market solutions. It does mean, however, that they must publicly acknowledge that polluting a neighborhood is not a conservative value. They should stress the need to prioritize risks and explain why market approaches often work better than regulations -- not only for preserving liberty and economic growth, but for the environment as well.
Most people want more freedom, a stronger economy and a clean and healthy environment. Republicans can win the environmental debate if they meet this challenge, and give people all three. With a positive vision, they can do just that.
Note: John Shanahan is former environmental policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.