Politics & Prose May 2001

Plunder on the Right

Plunder on the Right

Arsenic in the water? Carbon dioxide in the air? It may all be part of George Bush's re-election strategy

The Bush Administration's pandering to the big uglies of Big Business—coal, oil, automobiles—could turn out to be a condign political miscalculation, a hubristic misreading of the slenderest mandate in history, reviving an image of the GOP that Ronald Reagan's rhetorical invocation of national-interest Republicanism had seemed to efface and tipping suburban America to the Democrats. It could also turn out to be at the heart of a small-state coalition shaped for the re-election of George W. Bush. Sometimes political parties are punished for the company they keep. In the seventies and eighties, using code words like "crime in the streets" and attacks on welfare "queens," the GOP successfully stigmatized the Democrats as the party of black America—not the party of civil rights, which had notional majority support, but of busing, quotas, welfare, and crime. As late as 1991, President George Bush the elder planned to run for re-election on "quotas and Kuwait." However, the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, which inflamed women's groups against the GOP and led directly to the election of a number of Democratic women to Congress in 1992, "The Year of the Woman," disarmed attacks on affirmative-action programs, from which women as well as minorities have benefited. It was not until the Clinton Administration that the Democrats escaped from the white backlash encouraged by the GOP. Clinton succeeded in distancing the Democrats from the web of negative associations the GOP had spun around their base. No longer the party of quotas, crime, and welfare, the post-Clinton Democrats are ripe for redefinition as the party of the broad national interest. Now it is the Republicans who risk becoming tagged as the party of the special interests—specifically, of Big Business, arrayed in its swag-bellied vesture as poisoner of the elements, plunderer of the wilderness, and perpetrator of global warming.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Roundtable: "We're All Environmentalists Now. Right?" (September 13-20, 2000)
The state of the earth's biosphere ought to be a major issue—perhaps the major issue—of the 2000 presidential campaign. Yet, thus far, it is not. Eileen Claussen, Gregg Easterbrook, Mary A. Gade, and Bill McKibben join us for an interactive discussion on environmental priorities and political necessities, hosted by The Atlantic's Jack Beatty.

The environment is the only valence issue left in American politics: delegates to last year's Republican convention, polls revealed, wanted the environment protected—even at the price of jobs and slowed economic growth. With the exception of politicians such as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from states dependent on extractive industries like oil, mining, and natural gas, no one in public life can afford to be seen as an enemy of a clean environment. Or at least no one who hopes to compete for the suburban vote. A majority of Americans now live in suburbs. Partly in response to racial backlash politics, suburbia started tilting Republican in the 1960s. But in 1992, with the help of Ross Perot, Clinton drew even with the Republicans in the suburbs, and the Democrats and Republicans split the suburban vote in the 2000 election as well. Bush's education rhetoric, to which his concrete proposals are only murkily aligned, is aimed at winning suburban voters back to the GOP in their Reagan-era strength. In this strategic context his embrace of arsenic in drinking water—to put his decision to rescind tough Clinton regulations on water poisoning in its worst political light—was a disaster, a sop to big polluters at the expense of suburban families who don't want their kids poisoned. Republican-led environmental groups raised an outcry over the decision, which has also proved a fundraising tonic to the Sierra Club and other Democratic-leaning friends of the environment.

The fallout in suburban America has yet to be measured, but Democrats have the imagery of a lifetime to use against Republican incumbents in next year's congressional election and against Bush in 2004 (the Democratic National Committee is already running ads of "Mommy, why can't I have a drink of water?" subtlety). Breaking out of the Kyoto global-warming protocols, as Bush has announced the US will do, and rescinding his campaign promise at the behest of the power industry to lower carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants, are far worse for the environment, but arsenic in the water, arsenic put there by the corporate polluters who sponsor the GOP, is sound-bite-tailored outrage that all but bludgeons the attention even of apolitical suburban swing voters.

Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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