Enviros Eye Bush

The environmental movement has spent three years playing defense against a president they call the most anti-environment in history. Now they want payback, and hope to pull off a notoriously tough task: making green issues a big deal in a national race.

Already, the environment has become an issue in the Democratic contest, though not always in the way environmentalists would hope. Sen. John Kerry's (D-Mass.) campaign recently circulated literature that misleadingly claims Howard Dean compiled a poor environmental record as Vermont governor.

But looking beyond the primaries, there are signs that green issues could play an important role this year, when the environmental differences between the eventual nominee and Bush will be massive compared to any between the Democrats themselves. Enviros say their 2004 campaign will be bigger and, more important, better than past cycles, and strategists believe the White House's dismantling of environmental protections leave Bush vulnerable to attack.

At the same time, major candidates are issuing substantive environment and energy platforms that contrast starkly with the Bush record, which keeps getting more controversial. Last month, EPA offered what environmentalists call a weak plan to curb power plant mercury emissions that won't provide very steep reductions for 15 years -- the latest in what activists call a string of rollbacks that include easing oil and gas drilling restrictions on public lands, all but ignoring global warming emissions, and underfunding toxic waste cleanups, to name a few.

"You have a stark difference and a concrete record," says Aimee Christensen, a former Clinton administration energy official and now executive director of Environment 2004. The group, which includes former EPA head Carol Browner and several other Clinton-era environment officials, is raising money to publicize green issues in swing states this year. "If we are effective in communicating our message, it [the environment] can make a much bigger difference than it has in the past," she says.

But it's a big "if." The environment is a famously second-tier issue in national elections -- voters favor strong protections when asked about the environment directly, yet it's often far down the list when pollsters ask voters what their top concerns are.

As a result, the environmental movement is linking its message to issues with more immediacy. Green groups -- and, so far, the major Democratic candidates -- are increasingly connecting the environment to voters' core concerns about jobs, health and security. Environmentalists and candidates alike point out, for instance, that building a renewable energy infrastructure will create scores of good jobs and help wean the country off foreign oil. "It's not just getting the environmental vote, it's getting the swing vote. It's talking about public health and jobs," Christensen says.

The idea of linking the environment to issues that resonate more in presidential races is not entirely new. But the message will be more fully realized than in the past, in part because 2000 was an imperfect vehicle for the green movement and the Democrats as some enviros backed Ralph Nader. At the same time, Bush hadn't yet compiled the record that activists now believe is such a good target.

The environment will also surface as part of a larger critique of the Bush administration that goes something like this: The White House's cozy relationship with corporate contributors in the energy sector and elsewhere is placing big industries' interests -- in health policy, environmental rollbacks, tax policy and everything else -- ahead of the public's.

Democratic pollster Michael Bocian says the environment will be among a set of issues where Democrats can argue that "President Bush sides with his corporate friends instead of regular folks." Bocian's firm, headed by former Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg, said in a memo last year that tying Bush green policy to the president's corporate base is effective.

In addition to refining their message, environmental groups are navigating a post-McCain-Feingold campaign finance landscape that provides a new chance to elevate the profile of green issues. A slew of new political organizations -- including several backed by or including environmentalists -- are raising money to defeat Bush now that the Democratic Party can no longer collect unlimited "soft money" contributions.

"It means a lot of different constituencies, certainly the environmental community, are going to have to take more responsibility . . . in terms of getting out the vote and directly communicating with citizens and voters," says League of Conservation Voters (LCV) political strategist Mark Longabaugh.

Environment2004, one of the new groups, plans to research blocs of voters receptive to their message while leveraging the clout of its members to attack the Bush record in battleground states. Meanwhile, LCV and the Sierra Club are working with labor officials and other interest groups in America Votes, which will attempt to vastly increase coordination among liberal-leaning groups' voter mobilization efforts later in the year. Another new organization uniting the top officials of several interest groups, America Coming Together, plans to raise and spend over $90 million on the presidential and congressional races in nearly 20 states.

"Outside groups are going to influence the debate more than they used to," says the Center for Responsive Politics' Steven Weiss.

LCV, which in the past has focused far more on congressional elections, this time will spend millions across several swing states to beat Bush, and enviros say their logistical plans are evolving alongside their message. Longabaugh and others environmentalists believe they must devote more resources to grassroots organizing and voter contact strategies after large TV buys didn't prove decisive in 2002 races. LCV plans to field more than 20,000 volunteers in four states alone, including Florida and New Mexico.

The Primary Season

While green groups consistently attack the administration's record with a flood of reports and statement on the latest rollback, their political voice remains somewhat muted in the primary season. To date, major environmental groups' primary strategy looks designed to avoid falling out of favor with a candidate who may capture the nomination —- green groups are simply not powerful enough to risk irritating the nominee if they back the wrong guy.

Organizations like LCV show no sign that they will make an endorsement until the nomination battle is over or effectively so. But they are not completely ignoring the primaries either, leading LCV to adopt the rather awkward posture this month of issuing a report stating Sens. John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman have the best green records while endorsing neither because the group says any of the candidates is a big improvement over Bush.

The major candidates themselves are offering substantive environmental platforms that back up LCV's point. All favor mandatory programs to cut carbon dioxide emissions, and all favor reversing Bush administration relaxations of a key Clean Air Act program that requires coal-fired power plants to install pollution controls when they make upgrades.

Front-runner Howard Dean backs pending legislation to ensure Clean Water Act jurisdiction over millions of acres of wetlands and many other streams. His energy platform, like Kerry's, would mandate generating 20 percent of the nation's electricity from renewable sources by 2020, a goal Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), whose LCV score trails only Kerry's, also shares.

Kerry is also stressing the environment as he seeks traction in make-or-break New Hampshire, for instance unveiling plans to create a new bipartisan commission to enforce environmental statutes in cases where EPA and the Justice Department are failing to.

It would be hard to blame Kerry for being annoyed that many environmentalists compliment his record while their organizations won't get behind his candidacy. But it will also be hard to blame environmentalists if they pass completely on the primaries. They need their strength for the main event.

Ben Geman is an associate editor with Inside EPA, an environmental policy newsletter based in Arlington, VA. This story originally appeared on TomPaine.com.

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