Two months ago, at a debate for Republican presidential candidates, Michele Bachmann explained her belief that the Environmental Protection Agency shouldn’t exist. E.J. Dionne Jr. noted afterwards, “It’s a sign of how far to the right the Republican Party has moved that she didn’t stand out for her extreme views. On this stage, suggesting we should just rid ourselves of the Environmental Protection Agency seemed par for the course.”

Two months later, the accuracy of that assessment appears even more obvious.

The Environmental Protection Agency is emerging as a favorite target of the Republican presidential candidates, who portray it as the very symbol of a heavy-handed regulatory agenda imposed by the Obama administration that they say is strangling the economy. […]

Opposition to regulation and skepticism about climate change have become tenets of Republican orthodoxy, but they are embraced with extraordinary intensity this year because of the faltering economy, high fuel prices, the Tea Party passion for smaller government and an activist Republican base that insists on strict adherence to the party’s central agenda.

To be sure, the entire GOP field is not saying exactly the same thing about the Environmental Protection Agency, and their degrees of hostility toward it vary. Two candidates — Bachmann and Gingrich — want to eliminate the EPA altogether, while others simply want to put severe restrictions on the agency, preventing it from doing its job. But every person in the field has criticized the EPA, and even Jon Huntsman supports easing environmental standards until the economy picks up.

Rick Perry is of particular interest, since, as the New York Times noted, the Texas governor “has been at war with the E.P.A. almost since the day he took office.” This from the candidate who believes the entirety of climate science is a conspiracy cooked up by greedy scientists.

The Times added, “[W]hile attacks on the E.P.A., climate-change science and environmental regulation more broadly are surefire applause lines with many Republican primary audiences, these views may prove a liability in the general election, pollsters and analysts say. The American people, by substantial majorities, are concerned about air and water pollution, and largely trust the E.P.A., national surveys say.”

I certainly hope that’s still true. The very existence of the EPA has never been a partisan issue until now — Nixon created the agency four decades ago — and my fear is Republican activists will loathe the office simply because their national candidates tell them to.

But the American mainstream will probably know better. Atrios explained a while back, “Water (and air) in much of the country used to be dirty. Really really dirty. A lot of those really dirty waterways are now somewhat less dirty, if not places you want to actually swim in or fish, and a lot more of the places that were somewhat dirty are now places people swim and fish in.”

If voters want to turn back this clock, the Republican Party will offer candidates eager to do just that. But if this becomes a campaign issue, the GOP may be surprised by the extent to which Americans still care whether their air and water are clean.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.