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.
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.