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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

GOP Presidential Campaign Analysis

Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard (HURTS-guard) joins host Steve Curwood for an analysis of the two Republican frontrunners and their positions on the environment.


CURWOOD: Joining us now is Living on Earth's political observer
Mark Hertsgaard. Hi, Mark.


CURWOOD: Now, one of the things we've been hearing in both of our reports on Senator McCain and Governor Bush is that neither man is stressing the environment. At least not at this stage of the contest, the primaries. Of course, really nobody is, yet the polls keep telling us that people do want to know about the environment. What's this disconnect? What's going on here?

HERTSGAARD: It is true, Steve, that polls say that 93 percent of Republican voters care about a presidential candidate's position on the environment. That's as many people as care about taxes. And yet, if you look at all the debates on television, it's taxes, taxes, taxes that occupies all the time. Part of that I think is that's a red meat kind of issue for Republican voters, especially in primaries. The environment is something that Republicans may care about, but it is not a red meat kind of thing that you've got to get out there and make a lot of political traction with. And I think that's kind of what's happening. Neither candidate is feeling like that's where they're going to go to really stake out a position. And to be honest, neither the public nor our colleagues in the rest of the press seem to be forcing them very much to be doing that.

CURWOOD: So you think it's not really a big deal inside the Republican party? Maybe it'll be different when the general election comes?

HERTSGAARD: I think that's possible, and indeed likely, because at that point the Democrats, whether it's Bradley or Gore or someone else are clearly going to be talking more about the environment and trying to distinguish between their position, which they feel is a vote-getter, and trying to paint the Republicans as passive or worse on environmental issues.

CURWOOD: Now, one thing that we do hear from Governor Bush, for example, we hear about voluntary compliance. And Senator McCain also favors local control of public lands and environmental regulations. What's their constituency? Who are they speaking to here? Those views of voluntary compliance and local control, they resonate more with Republican voters, or with Republican campaign contributors?

HERTSGAARD: I think it's a very clever strategy on their part, because conveniently enough, those themes certainly resonate with Republican voters on the rhetorical level. It also, though, happens to be music to the ears of industrial polluters. And we see this very specifically in the case of Governor Bush. This incredible new book, The Buying of the President 2000, by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, documents very authoritatively the way that, in Texas, Governor Bush allowed the state's biggest polluters to essentially write their own law about regulating pollution, air pollution in particular. We've got the private memos in this book that DuPont's representative on that board wrote. And he was frankly astonished that, as he put it, these regulations have nothing to do with actual emissions. It's all a PR exercise. Governor Bush was happy to join in that, and to tell the press that we stand for clean air here in Texas. And yet, when you look at what happened after those regulations were passed, almost none of the facilities in question actually decreased their pollution. And that's to be expected if you've got a voluntary program. So, it is, on the surface that kind of rhetoric is pleasing to the voters. But if you look a little bit closer underneath, you can see that it's also music to the ears of the polluters themselves.

CURWOOD: I think it's also interesting to look at how Senator McCain and Governor Bush seem to be redefining the environment to be conservation. Governor Bush talks about being an outdoorsman. Senator McCain rails against, quote, "the far-left liberal environmental community." Do you think they're trying to reshape this debate?

HERTSGAARD: Yes I do. And this has been a theme for Republicans for quite some time. You know, when you talk about environmentalism, you immediately get into the questions of industrial pollution. Ever since Rachel Carson wrote her Silent Spring in 1962, modern environmentalism has been about dealing with the consequences of an industrial society. But if you're talking about conservation, that's something that for the first half of this century, that's what environmentalists were, because most of those issues were sort of protecting open space, and you know, both McCain and Bush say: "I want to be like Teddy Roosevelt." Teddy Roosevelt, of course, the great Republican president at the start of this century, who did yeoman work in putting lots and lots of land in this country up for public ownership. So they try to wrap themselves in the mantle of Teddy Roosevelt rather than Rachel Carson.

CURWOOD: Let's talk a little bit about the difference between these two men when it comes to the environment. What are the differences, and how do the environmental activists view both Senator McCain and Governor Bush?

HERTSGAARD: Well, I've been talking to environmental activists. And frankly, they don't hold out a lot of hope for either McCain or Bush. But if forced to choose, most of them said that they would marginally prefer John McCain. They look at George Bush's record in Texas and say that here's a guy who lets the polluters write their own laws. John McCain, on the other hand, at least every once in a while on Capitol Hill, has voted the right way on environmental issues, has a bit of a maverick streak, has done some things to protect public land in the West. And so, if forced to choose, I think they would go with John McCain rather than George Bush, Jr.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. He'll be back next week when we look at the Democratic candidates Bill Bradley and Al Gore. You can listen to all our candidate profiles and analysis and link directly to the campaigns themselves and political watchdog groups, by visiting the special election page we put together on the Living on Earth website. That web address is www.loe.org.
That's www.loe.org. Thanks, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.



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