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

Playing the Environment Card

Air Date: Week of

Alex van Oss reports from Washington on the environmental strategies being used by the major presidential candidates. Although neither campaign has put environmental issues at the forefront, the Republicans have been more aggressive, often accusing the Democrats of extremism.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Rarely does a book become a major factor in a presidential campaign. But in this year of electoral surprises, Democratic Vice Presidential challenger Al Gore's new book, Earth in the Balance, has filled much of the spotlight. Gore's treatise on the environment was published just four months before his selection as Bill Clinton's running mate, and depending on your perspective, the book is either a plea for radical reform of the way humans use and abuse the earth's resources, or an extremist tract proposing pricey solutions to unproven problems. And the book has become a rallying point for the Republicans, who have smarted under criticisms that Vice President Quayle has tried to thwart environmental regulations. Under Quayle, the Vice Presidency has come to play a central role in environmental policy, and later in the program we'll hear how both contenders might continue that legacy.

But first, from Washington, Alex van Oss reports how the major presidential tickets have been playing the environment card in the current campaign.

VAN OSS: Even with the environment a low-priority issue, both sides in this race have taken an unusual strategy with it, almost switching places. John Shanahan is environmental policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy think-tank in Washington, DC.

SHANAHAN: Gore, who is quite outspoken on the environment, is not being very outspoken during the campaign. The strategy is mum's-the-word. The reason for that is that he's vulnerable to attacks from the GOP on the environment for being extremist.

BUSH (at rally) : I normally don't speak much about his running mate, Senator Gore of Tennessee, but he's written this famous book now that Governor Clinton talks about. On page 325 of the book, he makes an interesting comparison. He says that the automobile industry and I quote right here, quotations, 'poses a mortal threat to the security of every nation that is more deadly than that of any military enemy we're ever again likely to confront.' What kind of people are we dealing with here? (Crowd noise)

VAN OSS: Senator Albert Gore wrote a best-selling book on the environment, but many of his proposals in it are controversial, and what's fine for Gore the senator is trickier for Gore the White House candidate. Shanahan says the Republicans need to adjust their environmental posture to show their concern, and at the same time, their sense of proportion.

SHANAHAN: Bush is vulnerable to both conservatives and environmentalists on the environment, so he's taken a rather aggressive strategy. His strategy is to basically point out differences between himself and Gore.

VAN OSS: One of those differences is over what the true cost is of making environmental protection a top priority, which both sides claim to want to do. President Bush, in speeches last month in the Pacific Northwest, warned that his opponent's policies favor trees and birds over people and paychecks.

BUSH (at rally): We must talk sense about the Endangered Species Act, about the spotted owl, and about the management of our forests. Because it is my firm belief that people and their jobs deserve protection too.

McINTURFF: I think that you can look at the Bush campaign using the environment as a jobs issue.

VAN OSS: Bill McInturff is a Republican political pollster with the Virginia firm, Public Opinion Strategies.

McINTURFF: The Bush campaign is getting to the point where they're developing a theme about Bill Clinton, and that is: if you're worried about your job, Bill Clinton is not the answer.

VAN OSS: But during this campaign, Republicans have criticize Governor Clinton's own environmental record in his home state of Arkansas. All in all, it's an inconsistent campaign strategy by the Republicans, says Mark Mellman, a polling consultant for Democratic candidates and progressive interest groups.

MELLMAN: Bush's strategy is somewhat schizophrenic. He goes to Michigan and campaigns against Senator Gore saying that the Democratic ticket is too strong on the environment, and that it will hurt Michigan autoworkers. Then he goes to states around Arkansas and says Clinton is not a strong enough environmentalist.

Both President Bush and Governor Clinton have, as officials, passed legislation favoring jobs over environmental protections, but their campaign rhetoric sets them far apart.

CLINTON: The way this thing has been presented, you know, is jobs vs. the owls. If that's the dilemma, you'd never win that argument; in other words, we could cut down every tree, if you want to, you could clear the whole forest in five years and put everybody to work. You'd have a negative unemployment rate in Oregon, and then you'd be worse off than you were in the beginning.

VAN OSS: Any qualms environmentalists may have had about Clinton were quieted by his choice for running mate. Senator Albert Gore has taken a strong pro-environment stand in Congress, and at the Democratic National Convention called saving the earth's environment the 'central organizing principle in the post-Cold-War world.' Republican and Democratic analysts agree the environment has become a generational theme, sparking the most interest among younger voters. To some it's almost become a symbol of rejuvenation.

GORE: If you want a dramatic difference in the environmental policies of your country, if you want the kind of leadership that our country needs and that our world needs, then get off the sidelines, get involved, make a difference, be a part of this winning team.

MADDY: You do see some symbolic use of the environmental issue as identifying with the next generation, as identifying with this theme of generational change.

VAN OSS: Jim Maddy is executive director of the nonpartisan League of Conservation Voters in Washington.

MADDY: On the Bush side they're using the environment sort of as the symbolic bogeyman, it's, they don't have world communism to run against anymore, and there's a substantial segment of the advisors around the President saying let's run not just against the environment, but let's run against environmentalists.

VAN OSS: In any campaign, there's more than meets the ear, and that's true for this year and the environment issue. Analysts say that what the spotted owl actually means to a voter depends on where that voter lives, what the voter does for a living. It also depends on education, income level, and age. But do campaign strategists really know -- precisely -- the target groups they're after? John Shanahan of the Heritage Foundation says yes.

SHANAHAN: The Bush Administration is trying to gather those folks that are moderate, those who are not, do not have their mind made up that the environment should be the central organizing principle for civilization; those people are clearly in the Clinton/Gore camp.

VAN OSS: If the Republicans are after so-called moderate voters, so are the Democrats. Republican pollster Bill McInturff says the Democrats are doing what they've done in past election cycles -- use issues like abortion and the environment to harvest a few votes even in, say, affluent Republican suburbs.

McINTURFF: And that tightening of the margins in those precincts then means that the Democrats can mobilize in their strong areas and win some close elections.

VAN OSS: As for the third candidate, Ross Perot -- the Texas businessman has said little about the environment. His running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, said in the Vice Presidential debate that he'd read Senator Gore's book on the environment, but said he didn't see how Gore could pay for his clean-up proposals in today's economic climate. As for whether Perot has anything much to contribute on the environmental issue, Republican pollster Bill McInturff called the off-and-on-again candidate a . . .

McINTURFF: . . . zip, not a nothing, I mean, as you connect Perot and the environment, it's just a non-connect.

VAN OSS: It's hard to tell is the environment, or any single issue, or any position on that issue, can give a candidate the winning edge. But this is the first election with an incumbent who's a self-proclaimed environmental president, and a challenger for Vice President, Senator Gore, who's put himself on the printed line, with a hefty book on the issue. Whoever sits in the White House next year, analysts say the environment will remain a political priority, with policy influenced, as it is now, by the Vice President. For Living on Earth, this is Alex van Oss, in Washington.



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