Monday, April 7, 2014

Pawn in a Larger Game

Regular readers know that there's a long and sordid history of left-leaning interest groups--and environmental organizations in particular--succumbing to a kind of willful blindness when it comes to Sen. Susan Collins and her record.

We saw it in 2008 with the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) endorsing Collins even though she had a significantly worse record than her Democratic opponent according to LCV's own scorecard.

We also saw it in the wake of Collins's support for the 2011 incarnation of the Ryan budget, with Maine's senior senator earning praise from a children's advocacy organization just two weeks after voting to gut Head Start and food stamps.

There are, alas, many other examples. (Equality Maine is one organization that has, at least at times, charted a different course.)

So it was galling but not surprising when it was announced that a TV ad supporting Collins was going to be running in Maine as part of a multi-organization, multi-state pro-environment (or was it pro-renewable energy?) advocacy campaign.

On the Collins ad in particular, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) was teaming up with something called Mom's Clean Air Force (MCAF) to pay for a spot in local TV markets touting a pair of Collins votes that the Maine-centric ad suggests--against a backdrop of buoys and lobster traps--have helped protect "our" way of life.

Forget that both organizations are based in Washington DC and that no one on the ground in Maine was consulted about or involved in the decision to run the ad, according to David DiMartino of strategic communications firm Blue Engine Media, who spearheaded the campaign.

Forget also that Collins, a Keystone XL pipeline supporter with a lifetime LCV score of 67% (and dropping), has sided with climate deniers and corporate polluters in vote after vote in recent years--at one point famously blaming the weak economy for her lack of urgency on climate change.

That record notwithstanding, EDF and MCAF apparently felt so strongly about touting Collins's supposed pro-environment bona fides--based on two votes out of literally dozens scored by LCV in the last few years--that they could think of no better use of their hard-won funds than to take to the airwaves to tell Mainers about their own senator.

In purely environmental advocacy terms, it was hard to make sense of. So I reached out to EDF for answers. (I was less persistent in my efforts to speak with MCAF, a group with a shorter track record and a smaller footprint.)

I was eventually put in touch with EDF's Keith Gaby and we had a spirited fifteen minute back-and-forth.

Unfortunately, Gaby wouldn't confirm EDF's relationship with MCAF; or the size of the ad buy; or EDF's contribution to the buy; or the channels the ad was placed with.

He also refused to shed any light on the process through which the decision to green-light the ad was reached; or why it was launched as part of a multi-state, multi-organization effort; or whether it was dishonest for two DC-based organizations with no apparent Maine presence to craft an ad that poses as a message to Mainers by Mainers.

But his answers to my question about why EDF chose to single out Collins were illuminating.

After I rattled off a series of high profile anti-environment votes by Maine's senior senator (including the 2005 Cheney energy bill which LCV called the "most anti-environment bill signed into law in recent memory"), Gaby stipulated that Collins has taken any number of actions that EDF disapproves of.

Still, he argued, Collins, as a Republican, had taken particular risk on the votes EDF was touting. It was an idea he circled back to repeatedly as he made his case for lavishing praise on the three-term incumbent.

When I questioned that premise--and the idea that she deserved special recognition on the basis of her party affiliation--Gaby seemed to think I was kidding or being cute. He was genuinely flummoxed.

He ventured, ultimately, that it's "self-evident that a member of a political party" faces pressures by virtue of that membership. (That Collins actually chooses to subject herself to those pressures by running as a Republican didn't seem to weigh into his calculus.)

He argued, further, that highlighting the votes of a fellow Republican might "encourage others" in the GOP to see the political upside of taking more environmentally-friendly stances.

The overarching idea seemed to be that support for Collins could be used as way to reward her for breaking with her GOP colleagues (however sporadically) and to incentive other Republicans to think about taking pro-environment positions. That seemed to be about the size of it.

There are, of course, any number of reasons to be skeptical of Gaby's argument. (I've dealt with some of them here and here.)

But I'll make three new points:

First, at least as it applies to Collins, the encouragement-via-praise approach has been tried and it's failed: Collins had a 68% lifetime rating with LCV when it endorsed her in 2006, presumably with hopes similar to those espoused by Gaby. Today her lifetime rating stands one tick lower at 67%. And she never got behind the only viable climate change proposal that surfaced in the Senate during that period.

Second, it's clear as day that EDF's agenda here has almost nothing to do with Collins or a couple of cherry-picked votes--let alone the interests of Mainers. Rather, it's about a larger game.

Whether the goal is actually to try to change the political dynamic around environmental issues or whether it's simply about appeasing wealthy right-leaning donors (or something else entirely) is impossible to say. But plainly, Collins is being used as a pawn. The fact that she's happy to be used in this way doesn't make the ad itself--or the calculation behind it--any less disingenuous.

Third, whatever their aims, groups like EDF would have more credibility in this kind of effort if they were willing to pair their praise of Collins with a commitment to call out her bad acts. After all, you can't advance the cause of environmental defense through happy talk alone; constituents deserve an accurate picture of the political challenges that stand in the way of success.

For mission-based organizations, the imperative to be straight with with members, donor and stakeholders requires candor. Or it ought to.

UPDATE: Jonathan Cohn alerts us to the fact that according to MCAF's own website, MCAF "is a special project of the Environmental Defense Fund, which provides the funding and staff support."

EDF's unwillingness to confirm this relationship is rather curious.

1 comment:

Cujo359 said...

Whether the goal is actually to try to change the political dynamic around environmental issues or whether it's simply about appeasing wealthy right-leaning donors (or something else entirely) is impossible to say.

It's hard to say what's on peoples' minds, but I think the idea that most progressive "pressure" groups operate under these days is that if they don't rock the boat, they'll keep their jobs. Speak out against a powerful politician and lose, you might end up unemployed. Give that politician your support, and then when he doesn't do what you want act like you're shocked that he could betray you this way.

That works with most progressives because that's what they've come to expect.

I gave up on these groups a decade ago, and while it's sad on the one hand, at least I get to keep the money and I don't waste so much time writing e-mails to Congress.