04/11/2012 06:54 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2012

Boehlert's Play Book

Will environmental issues play a role in the 2012 presidential campaign, and if so, how? Keep in mind that in previous White House contests, environmental concerns rarely surfaced in the exchanges between candidates.

Past presidential nominees -- regardless of political persuasion -- who had any environmental baggage successfully diffused the issue by using common sense as a cover. When pressed, they rhetorically asked: who in their right mind would be against cleaner air, cleaner water, and environmental enhancement in general? The answer invariably eased any concerns among the majority of voters, who turned their attention elsewhere.

But the 2012 campaign could be different. From a tactical standpoint, it would be to President Obama's advantage to make environmental concerns as persistent focus in his debates with presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.

Ironically, it is a Republican politician who inadvertently (or maybe not so) has provided an environmental campaign blueprint that would allow Obama to put Romney on the spot. The Republican is Sherwood Boehlert, who hails from upstate New York and is the retired chairman of the House Science Committee.

There is a reason Boehlert's proposal is more in line with Obama than one would normally expect from a GOP source. If the "green" Boehlert were serving in today's Republican controlled anti-regulatory House of Representatives, he would be considered a relic and apostate within his own party. It should thus come as no surprise that he has expressed disenchantment with the GOP's current practice of treating environmental protection in a largely antagonistic, partisan way.

Boehlert posits that environmental concerns are too important to be excluded from the presidential campaign dialogues, and accordingly, he proposes the candidates agree to "a set of fundamental consensus principles to establish the parameters of debate." These principles would still leave plenty of room, Boehlert says, for the candidates to advocate different approaches to solving problems.

Boehlert's fundamental consensus principles that he wants Obama and Romney to embrace are:
  • Conceding that protecting the air, water, and land is a basic federal responsibility for which the free market, corporate volunteerism, and state regulations cannot substitute.
  • Global warming is real, largely caused by human activity, and must be promptly addressed
  • The United States needs to move forward towards a more efficient, clean energy economy
  • Federal government subsidies are important for research, development, and distribution of alternatives to fossil fuels.

Obama's core constituency and the American public in general would be comfortable with these principles, which have been championed in spirit, if not always practice, by the president. He would have no hesitation in parading them in the public spotlight, stressing for political effect that they were of Republican origin.

But the playing field would be different for Romney. Members of his conservative base are largely skeptical of global warming as a threat, much less as a product of human activity. They consider most environmental regulations an undue fiscal burdens and encroachment on individual freedom to engage in commerce. From their perspective, clean energy can only replace fossil fuels through free market competition, not as a result of federal government subsidies.

That would leave Romney with a toxic political challenge. If he agreed to Boehlert's debate ground rules, he would risk offending the ultra conservative core of his party that already is skeptical of his professed ideological purity. If Romney were to reject Boehlert's consensus principles, Obama could use the refusal against the GOP nominee with independent swing voters. They tend not to share conservatives' zealous ideological opposition to environmental reform.

It would be a win-win proposition for Obama and just the opposite for his Republican challenger.