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

The Environment and Election 2000

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood leads a roundtable discussion about how the environment played in the election. Guests include pollster Al Quinlan, Deb Callahan, director of the League of Conservation Voters, and Lynn Scarlett, director of the Reason Foundation.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. We had planned to come on the air this week and discuss the environmental agenda of the next administration and maybe take a look at some of the possible appointees for key environmental positions. I guess that didn't quite work out as we had hoped since no one knows who our next president will be right now. But we do know a few things about the election including the make-up of the House and Senate and just how important the environmental vote was this election season. My guests now are Alan Quinlan, of the Democratic polling firm, Greenberg-Quinlan Research. Hi Alan.

QUINLAN: Hello Steve.

CURWOOD: And Deb Callahan is with the League of Conservation Voters. Hi Deb.

CALLAHAN: Hi Steve, nice to talk to you again.

CURWOOD: And Lynn Scarlett with the Reason Foundation. Hi there.


CURWOOD: Alan Quinlan, first question to you, our pollster. How did the environment play out in this year's election?

QUINLAN: Well the environment became a, was a higher priority in this election than we've seen, frankly in my lifetime. You can start at the top of the ticket with the presidential race, where the environment truly became a, one of number of issues, not the single issue, obviously, at the top, but one important issue in the presidential campaign. It was the first issue that Al Gore used as a comparative in a television commercial immediately after the conventions. It was the first comparative to run nationally. It was the first issue he mentioned in his acceptance speech, and it was the first issue that Joe Lieberman mentioned in his acceptance speech. So the Democratic top of the ticket clearly saw it as an issue on which to draw a contrast with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. And I think used that fairly effectively during the campaign.

CURWOOD: Were there any surprises in this campaign?

QUINLAN: Yes, a few that I think surprised a lot of people. First of all more candidates in Senate races and Congressional race used this issue in their campaigns. And we saw it used not only on the coasts but also in the heartland. In the state of Michigan, George W. Bush and the Republican party tried to make Al Gore's environmental record and some of the statements he's made in the past an issue in the campaign and tried to drive UAW members and auto workers away from Al Gore. It failed miserably. And Al Gore carried the state by about five percentage points and drew tremendous majority support from auto workers. In Montana a very conservative state, Conrad Burns was under siege by environmental organizations and others for his record on the environment. And in the end a race that could have easily been 15 to 20 points in the Republican column, as the presidential race was in that state, became a three point race, and Conrad Burns was almost defeated. So raising this issue in the Heartland where there are records to compare clearly is, can be a very effective campaign tool.

CURWOOD: I'd like to turn now to Lynn Scarlett with the Reason Foundation. Now you're here with us not as a representative of them but as an advisor to the Bush campaign, right?

SCARLETT: That's right.

CURWOOD: Now tell me with or without Mr. Bush in the White House, what do you think the Republican agenda in Congress will be on the environment?

SCARLETT: Well Steve, I think two things will shape what the Republicans will do on the Hill this year. One is that, of course, we're coming out of ten years of a deep divide between Democrats and Republicans in which environment really, there was a big chasm between them, lots of fireworks. And I think many Republicans are actually quite frustrated at that and would like to move beyond that and find some points of convergence. So the second thing I think, though, that will reinforce that olive branch approach, if you will, is that clearly with this tight election, not only at the presidential level, but across the country in the congressional races, clearly there's no strong mandate for dramatically new directions for either party here. So I think that this is a time when we'll likely see the Republicans extend an olive branch of some sort, try to find points of convergence, issues they can work on on the environmental front and de-emphasize some of the fireworks. Now don't get me wrong, that doesn't mean there won't be some of those fireworks, but I think there's going to be some attempt to go a new direction here. CURWOOD: And who will be carrying the green flag in the Republican party on the Hill?

SCARLETT: Well I think clearly Senator Smith, who is chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee. He took over when John Chaffee died. I think clearly he will be a leader and he has shown already that he is interested in that olive branch. He is interested in some environmental endeavors and initiatives that are positive. On the House side less clear. Of course there are some folks still that are going to continue to dwell on the sound science issue and cost/benefit analysis, but I think you have some new emerging leaders, folks like Paul Ryan, a young Congressman from Wisconsin. Environmental issues are very important to him. I think we'll see folks like that helping to lead the way with the olive branch and see if they can't find some common ground with Democrats.

CURWOOD: Now Deb Callahan, you are president of the League of Conservation Voters and your organization endorsed Vice-President Gore for the presidency. So I'm going to ask you to talk about the Democrats here. No matter who is in the White House, with or without Mr. Gore there, what will they be trying to accomplish on Capitol Hill this time?

CALLAHAN: I love Lynn's optimistic comment that there will be olive branches extended from both sides and that would be a great thing. I'm not so sure though that the policy chasm that has sort of separated Republicans and Democrats on environmental issues has changed. Through the election, I saw a lot of sort of rhetoric change, "Yes, I'm clean air, clean water." But I didn't hear the sort of underpinning proposals change necessarily. I do think who sits in the White House makes a big difference. If Bush is elected with the same leadership in the Congress in the House and the Senate, then I think you'll see the sort of Contract with America kinds of anti-environmental proposals move out of the House and Senate. And that's not because there aren't Republicans who are strong environmentalists, conservationists and allies, but you look at the leadership in the House and the Senate, they're some of the most anti-environmental members that we see. And so we will have to wait and see. And I think that the White House has a lot of bearing. That said I think because we know the House and the Senate are so close in numbers, numerically, the most important members in both of those bodies are going to be those folks who are willing to cross the aisle. Leave party allegiances behind and follow what their constituents want them to do in terms of the environment and join together and create, you know, strong environmental policies.

CURWOOD: Deb, by the way, who among the Democrats will be leading the environmental effort on Capitol Hill?

CALLAHAN: It's interesting the leadership in the House, Gephardt got a 93 percent on our score card, Bonyer got a 97, those folks are, you know, clearly have lead on this agenda along with people who've run committees though we're seeing some of the committee leaderships shift around, or what I should say ranking of minority committee leaders. So for instance, George Miller who has been, he's in the pantheon of environmental leaders around the country. He will no longer be the ranking Democrat on Resources Committee. So on the committee level, you know, there will be new leaders, but on the Democratic side we're well served by the people at the very top of the party.

CURWOOD: Alan, I'd like to come back to you and tell us what you see, in the numbers, about the role of the Green Party in these presidential elections. Where did the Nader votes really make a difference? And how closely tied to the environment were they?

QUINLAN: Well the Nader block is tied to the environment, but there are other dominant issues that play into the Nader phenomenon, as we might call it. Nader did not affect the presidential race in many places. If you look at where he ran the strongest, most of those states Al Gore won, you know, California, Washington state in the west, Wisconsin in the mid-west, Minnesota in the mid-west, and most of New England. You know his vote approached six, seven percent in Vermont and Maine, but Al Gore still carried those states handily. There are three states in which he clearly had an effect. The first is Florida. Anytime you lose a state by 300 votes, it's somewhat, even though Ralph Nader only got two percent of the vote, obviously that's enough to swing a race that close. And exit polls show that Nader voters would have supported Gore by about two to one after a third of them sat home. Oregon was the other state Al Gore lost by two points and Ralph Nader got about four and a half percent of the vote and the other was New Hampshire, where Al Gore also lost by about a point and a half and Ralph Nader got about four, four and a half percent of the vote. So he clearly had an effect in those three states, but the effect was not as broadly felt as some might have thought going into the election.

CURWOOD: We're just about out of time here, but quickly, Lynn Scarlett, Alan began our discussion saying this is a historic moment for environmental voters and the issue. Do you think that's what we see?

SCARLETT: I'm not sure I would go quite that far. I think we've seen over the last decade an evolutionary growing importance of environmental issues for the American populous. And what we do have is, at the local level, increasing importance of environmental issues. Governor Bush in his, as he was campaigning, in fact, the three speeches he gave on environment all kind of dwelled on kind of local issues -- hazardous site clean-up, conservation -- backyard kinds of things. When you thrust that to the national level the environment was really not particularly prominent in the three big debates between the presidential candidates. So yes it's an important issue, kind of at the margin, but it has not yet quite come center stage at the national level that perhaps might still loom in the future.

CURWOOD: Deb Callahan, what do you think?

CALLAHAN: I actually see it a bit differently. This is a hard issue to sort of characterize because it's such a broad issue, but I think that people know that there was a real serious debate about the future of energy policy in this country. I think people heard a lot of discussion about air quality, about drilling in the Arctic, about other important environmental issues. So it's not a "I'm pro-choice, I'm pro-life" issue. Yet when you go back and you look at debates, in the second debate there was quite a lengthy discussion near the end of the debate about the environment. In the first debate there was a discussion about the environment. In the third debate there was a discussion about agricultural aspects of conservation. There were spots by the Republican and Democratic parties and by both candidates on the environment, and so I do think it was an important issue. That said, a national poll that we did that Peter Hart did, showed that only about 50 percent of the American public understood that there were real differences between Bush and Gore on the environment. I think in part Ralph Nader saying there was no difference sort of underpinned that attitude, but it was a, it was a very, very important, I think, top-middle tier issue. I think it was the top of the second tier.

CURWOOD: I'd like to thank all of you for joining us today. Lynn Scarlett is director of the Reason Foundation. Thanks.

SCARLETT: Thanks, great to be with you.

CURWOOD: And Deb Callahan directs the League of Conservation Voters. Good-bye Deb.

CALLAHAN: Good to talk with you Steve.

CURWOOD: And Alan Quinlan, president of Greenberg-Quinlan Research had the numbers for us. Thanks Alan.

QUINLAN: Thank you Steve.

CURWOOD: And maybe once when we know who our president is we can try again.



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