Frankly, They Do Give a Damn

Polling guru and GOP spinmeister Frank Luntz has uncovered a fact likely to rattle and bewilder some Republicans in Congress: Americans prefer clean water.

An emphatic memo [PDF] sent out by the Luntz Research Companies in February spotlighted Americans' intense feelings on the subject:

Young and old, Democrat AND Republican, the demand for clean water is universal. More importantly, the public is willing to pay for it. An overwhelming majority of Americans -- 91 percent -- agree that 'if, as a country, we are willing to invest BILLIONS of dollars annually in highways and airways, we certainly should be willing to make the necessary investments in our nation's waterways.'" [The italic and bold flourishes are Luntz Research's own.]
Luntz got heaps of publicity last year when the press got hold of an earlier memo in which he wrote, "The environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general -- and President Bush in particular -- are most vulnerable." The memo didn't advise GOP officials to implement new conservation policies or increase spending on the environment; instead, it tutored them on how to talk the talk, advising the use of buzzwords like "fair balance."

That approach didn't win Luntz many admirers in the "green green lima bean" set, as some Republicans like to call the environmentalist community. But his more recent memo suggests that Luntz may be considering the radical idea that actually addressing environmental challenges is an effective means of solving image problems. Who knows, maybe he's even getting in touch with his inner lima bean.

Luntz makes no bones about the import of the issue: "A majority of Americans ... believe that clean water is a RIGHT, not a privilege." The memo emphasizes voters' "intensity of feeling and the desire for action" on clean water. "I'll be blunt ... this issue is NOT going to go away. The environment is an area in which Americans expect progress to be made, and when they do not see progress being made, they get frustrated."

It's here that the memo wanders off the conservative reservation, suggesting tax-funded, centralized government action to address the water issue: a "trust fund" that would guarantee federal money to help keep America's water pure. It notes that 75 percent of poll respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a member of Congress if that person supported such a trust fund.

Still, in classic Luntz style, this latest enviro-focused memo puts high emphasis on "Words That Work" -- i.e., phrases that GOP politicians can use in public statements to convince constituents that they really care about clean water.

Some politicians seem to be taking the poll results to heart.

"The irony is that it was a GOP defector -- Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.)-- who actually used the memo to influence policy," said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm.

Jeffords referenced the document as he slammed the Bush administration's budget proposal for fiscal year 2005, which calls for slashing funding for clean water investments by nearly 40 percent -- from $1.35 billion to $850 million.

"The administration's budget completely fails to recognize the staggering water resource needs of this nation," Jeffords said as he waved the Luntz memo around during a budget hearing earlier this month in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "The recent poll by Republican pollster Frank Luntz that I am holding in my hand shows that 91 percent of Americans are concerned that our waterways will not be clean for our children and grandchildren."

It seems the Senate cares more about water (or at least polls about water) than the White House does. Last Friday, the chamber voted on a budget resolution that not only rejected Bush's efforts to cut clean-water spending, but called for more than doubling the funds from $1.35 billion to $3.5 billion.

Better a lima bean than a lima has-been.

Amanda Griscom writes the 'Muckraker' column for Grist Magazine.

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