The real reason Scott Pruitt is gone: Putting a key voting bloc at risk

The real reason Scott Pruitt is gone: Putting a key voting bloc at risk
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What does the long-predicted end of Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittMeet 3 women who stood up to Trump to protect the American people — and lost their jobs Overnight Energy: Wheeler weathers climate criticism at confirmation hearing | Dems want Interior to stop drilling work during shutdown | 2018 was hottest year for oceans Dems blast EPA nominee at confirmation hearing MORE’s tenure at EPA mean? It’s easy to speculate that the sheer volume of scandals generated over his relatively short tenure did him in. But Pruitt actually committed a more dangerous sin: Putting the jobs of a key voting bloc at risk. 

Every public official should pay attention to ethics laws and be smart about spending taxpayer dollars. But as recently as last week, GOP leaders like Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said they were satisfied with Pruitt’s answers to the scandal questions. A few weeks ago, the president personally expressed his support for Pruitt and implied that the allegations against him were unfounded.

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Others in the cabinet are weathering ethical scandals such as excessive use of first class tickets, or charters, or even military aircraft for seemingly personal purposes, or allegations of insider trading, or conflicts of interest, or lavish office spending, or even pay to play allegations. The GOP has largely looked the other way on all of these.

 

In fact, Pruitt’s downfall began when he broke the president’s promise to heartland voters and infuriated key GOP senators like Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyDem calls for Cohen to testify before Senate panel over explosive report Senate Republicans eye rules change to speed Trump nominees IRS shutdown plan fails to quell worries MORE of Iowa, John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneRove warns Senate GOP: Don't put only focus on base Leaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions MORE of South Dakota, Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerErnst elected to Senate GOP leadership This week: Congress starts lame-duck with leadership fight Senate GOP readies for leadership reshuffle MORE of Nebraska, Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntMcConnell: Senate won't override Trump veto on shutdown fight Senate immigration talks fall apart Emergency declaration option for wall tests GOP MORE of Missouri and Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstTrump tells GOP senators he’s sticking to Syria and Afghanistan pullout  McConnell: Senate will not recess if government still shutdown Barr calls for 'barrier system' on border MORE of Iowa. By doing favors for his friends in Oklahoma, Pruitt broke the president’s promise, inflicted real economic harm to the midwest, and lied about it to some of the president’s core supporters. As Bloomberg noted, “A deluge of political scandals hasn’t sunk EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. But a wonky debate over the nation’s biofuel policy just might.” And it did. 

Even Trump, with his penchant for risk taking and breaking norms, recognized that rural support was vital to victory in 2016 and made a firm promise to protect the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). Pruitt thought he could get away with a clever scheme to gut the RFS with a series of secret waivers to drive down the price of renewable fuels compliance credits.

Pruitt’s decision to mess with the RFS, a foundational pillar of the Midwest economy, could not have been more poorly timed. Heartland voters are looking at a troubled outlook for U.S. grain prices and devastating retaliatory tariffs targeting farm country from the president’s trade war with China. The renewable energy industry is critical to these rural economies. People like Grassley, who have fought for decades to foster the growth of biofuels and wind, aren’t going to sit back while a transient “room renter” tries to undo decades of their work. And once Pruitt started losing key Senate Republicans, his fate was sealed.

The conservative rallying cry around Pruitt was that he was only being punished for fulfilling Trump’s agenda. But that’s not why he lost the GOP support necessary to keep him in office. Like the RFS or not, Trump made a promise to the rural voters who helped him win the electoral college, and he will need rural votes to get reelected in 2020. In addition, Trump will desperately need the support of key heartland Republican senators if he hopes to accomplish anything legislatively.

In his first day leading the agency, Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced he would be changing the way EPA does business in terms of tone, transparency, and process. It’s hard to imagine Wheeler demanding a chartered jet or a “lights and sirens” ride to Le Diplomate. But Wheeler, and whoever succeeds him at EPA, would be well advised to undo the damage Pruitt did to the RFS and make sure the president can say that he kept his promise to rural voters. 

In fact, Wheeler ought to to take a look at the growing number of rural workers employed by clean energy companies in rural areas. In addition to biofuels, the growth of utility scale solar and wind farms is happening in places like Iowa, Arizona, Nevada, Kansas and even Pruitt’s Oklahoma.

The electorate may give you leeway on judgement, and even character, so long as you’re seen as protecting jobs and economic opportunity. Pruitt’s RFS missteps have resulted in his leaving the EPA, and perhaps even more importantly when coupled with Trump’s disastrous agricultural trade policies, have put many Trump rural voters in play. 

The flashing lights, phone booth and first class tickets got plenty of headlines in Washington. Wheeler clearly gets the need to avoid ethics scandals. But unless the new EPA leadership undoes Pruitt’s assault on rural economies, the lasting legacy of Pruitt’s tenure may very well be the political opportunity he has presented to Democrats with rural voters.

Mike Carr is the executive director of New Energy America, an organization that promotes clean energy jobs in rural America. Previously, he served as principal deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy.