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Inhofe and the Old/New Republicans

By Richard L. Fricker
February 14, 2007

After the Democrats won control of Congress last November, the conventional wisdom was that George W. Bush and other Republicans would look for ways to moderate far-right positions on key issues like the Iraq War and global warming, tacking closer to positions held by most American voters. 

But that isn’t what happened. Instead, the Republican leadership has dug in its heels on Iraq, lambasted scientists who warn about climate change and – despite a few rhetorical concessions here and there – continued to support the same ol’ stuff.

In that sense, Sen. James Mountain Inhofe of Oklahoma may be the poster boy of modern Republicanism, the guy who puts the certainty of his instincts and ideology ahead of contrary facts.

As chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Inhofe has steadfastly maintained that global warming is a “hoax” – and won’t back down whatever the overwhelming scientific consensus might be.

Inhofe used his Senate position to block any environmental legislation that would put burdens on business, especially the petroleum industry which filled his campaign coffers with at least $900,000 in the last funding cycle. Like Bush, Inhofe wanted nothing to do with the Kyoto Treaty and its requirements for cutting carbon-dioxide emissions.

Nearly 500 American cities – from Missouri hamlets to major cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco – have challenged the Bush administration’s resistance to Kyoto by passing local legislation endorsing the accords.

But the nearer the issue of global warming has gotten to center stage the more vitriol Inhofe has poured on environmentalists, scientists and the media. Environmentalists became “Nazis,” the regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency were the “Gestapo,” the media’s references to global warming were a “hoax.”

Though this strategy of demeaning opponents didn’t work in Election 2006, Inhofe remained unbowed. The senator fired off a letter to various CEOs complaining that environmentalists were about to take over his committee and warning that Wall Street would not look kindly on executives who succumbed to the environmental agenda.

No sooner had Inhofe’s letter been delivered and his committee chairmanship been surrendered to Sen. Barbara Boxer of California than the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report that ExxonMobil had engaged in a disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting findings about global warming.

ExxonMobil had pumped $16 million into at least 43 front groups, the scientific organization said. Within days, ExxonMobil announced it had ceased funding the groups and entered into talks with environmental organizations about what could be done to reduce greenhouse gases.

President Bush also added some green coloring to his State of the Union Address. While not exactly admitting that global warming exists, Bush said, “America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. And these technologies will help us be better stewards of the environment, and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change.”

Lip Service?

Bush and ExxonMobil may only be engaging in lip service on the environment, but Inhofe still choked on Bush’s mild rhetorical concessions, such as his support for ethanol production from corn, a process which Inhofe said would drive up costs for ranchers who use corn to feed their livestock.

“In regards to energy, I support the President’s call for increased domestic exploration, however, I take issue with aspects of other energy initiatives.

“Increasing the supply of alternative and renewable fuels will negatively impact Oklahoma farmers. Our state’s farmers are directly competing for the grain and corn used in the formulation of some of these alternative fuels. Thus, increased demand for these fuels increases the cost of feedstock for our farmers.”

Yet even many Oklahoma farmers consider the notion that ethanol production will create a corn shortage a “myth,” instead blaming market speculation for driving up prices.

Terry Detrick, a cattle rancher who is president of the Oklahoma Farmers Union, a co-op of 100,000-plus agricultural families, said ethanol production uses only the starch contained in corn, approximately two-thirds of the kernel, leaving the remainder as protein that can still be used for feed. That one-third can be mixed with other feed or grain oils, he said.

The Oklahoma Farmers Union has emerged as a leading proponent of ethanol production after conducting a federally funded study three years ago. The results, Detrick said, “exceeded all expectations.”

After the study, the union teamed up with Chaparral Energy, an oil company that recovers oil from existing but exhausted wells, to form Oklahoma Sustainable Energy LLC, a private corporation with 293 investors. The plan is to build a $100 million ethanol plant in Enid, Oklahoma, that is expected to employ 30 to 45 people and create an estimated 1,200 jobs in the community.

Detrick said the union also is exploring the possibility of entering into the production of grain oils from sunflowers, peanuts and soy beans. The byproducts of oil recovery from these grains would be mixed with the corn protein for livestock grain, he said.

Further undercutting fears about corn shortages, Detrick said corn-producing states already are ramping up production. Indiana, Illinois and Iowa are among the states that have increased their orders for corn seed for the coming crop year, he said.

Amplify Often

But Inhofe is not a politician who budges easily from his certainties. Like many Republicans in Washington, he appears to have judged that repetition of the same arguments – amplified loudly and frequently through friendly media outlets – can overcome contrary facts.

Inhofe’s stubbornness is tinged, too, by his reliance on fundamentalist Christianity to interpret political events, including the 9/11 terror attacks and Israel’s disputes with the Palestinians and other Arab neighbors.

“One of the reasons I believe the spiritual door was opened for an attack against the United States of America is that the policy of our Government has been to ask the Israelis, and demand it with pressure, not to retaliate in a significant way against the terrorist strikes that have been launched against them,” Inhofe said in a 2002 Senate speech.

“I believe very strongly that we ought to support Israel; that it has a right to the land. This is the most important reason: Because God said so,” Inhofe added, citing the Biblical passage in Genesis 13:14-17.

Inhofe also has made headlines by boasting that there has never been a divorce or a homosexual relationship in his family.

During the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal, Inhofe said he was “outraged at the outrage” over the mistreatment of the Iraqi detainees. He dismissed the International Committee of the Red Cross, which seeks humane treatment of prisoners of war, as a “bleeding heart.”

More recently, rather than accept the widespread judgment of an unfolding disaster in Iraq, Inhofe has simply asserted the opposite. “What has happened in Iraq is nothing short of a miracle,” he told an audience in Tulsa.

Inhofe may be an extreme case of Republicans relying on their certitude to tough their way back to congressional majorities in 2008, but he is certainly not alone.

However, unlike some of his GOP colleagues who are looking with dread toward the next round of elections, Inhofe is widely expected – according to a Tulsa World survey of state Republican and Democratic leaders – to coast to re-election.

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