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.
Still, the politics of the environment are sectional, with some regional strata favorable to the GOP. Gerald Seib, the Wall Street Journal columnist, has speculated that Bush may be willing to write off the bicoastal suburbs to pursue an anti-environment populist strategy in the states he won back from the Democrats last year—Louisiana, West Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas. These states and others are dominated by Big Oil or mining or have industries such as chicken processing that are sensitive to environmental- and workplace-safety regulations like the Clinton OSHA ergonomic rules, nearly a decade in the making, that Bush also rescinded. The Republicans have perfected anti-environment populism in the Mountain States, where they have a long history of running vote-motivating political ads—like the one used in the 1970s in Wyoming showing a cowboy riding a horse towing something with a rope as the voiceover decries "excessive government regulation." That something at the end of the rope slowly materializes into a porta-john required by the lunatic EPA to keep the cowboy from pissing on the prairie.
The conflict between jobs and the environment was a "false choice," Bill Clinton said repeatedly. Perhaps that is true in macroeconomic time, Keynes's "long run" when we are "all dead." But not in extractive economy states, where big companies can leave or threaten to leave for the Third World at the prospect of new regulation, and where money spent on high-tech coal scrubbers and other green technologies comes out of jobs and wages, or at least can be thus represented to workers by companies unwilling to subtract the money from profits. The two coasts sandwich a country that may not want to sacrifice much for the sake of a bicoastal environmental agenda. Yes, we all breathe the same air, but first we need to eat, to eat we need to work, and to work we need to be employed.
The Bush re-election strategy may be to exploit the warranted fears of working people across these states to solidify his newly won base, a socioeconomic region as much as a geographic one, where environmental protection is for many a new elitist means of imposing economic insecurity. Tellingly, Bush has already paid assiduous visits to some of these and other small states while avoiding California, the capital of suburban America, where Big Oil is despised and where Bush spent more than $10 million in losing decisively to Gore, who spent next to nothing. The environment may be hostage to the Electoral College, which awarded nearly a score of votes to Bush last year from states with more cows than people. Posterity may judge the 2000 election to be tragic in its consequences, tragic because of the irreversibility of climate change. Electing a former, if failed, oil man to the presidency when the page of history has turned from the state conflicts of the twentieth century to the global environmental crisis created by two hundred and fifty years of industrialism could come to be seen as the most irresponsible political act in American history.