Full Court Press Releases
Over the past few weeks of Presidential WrestleMania MMIV, the Bush campaign has fired off more than a dozen press releases about John Kerry's policies on energy, nuclear-waste storage, forest and water protections, and other environmental issues – a hodgepodge of smears, exaggerations, and obfuscations intended to besmirch Kerry's pro-environment reputation.
Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, says the Bush campaign is responding to polls indicating that voters are taking the environment seriously in key battleground states.
"The polling in Nevada is showing that people are voting on the Yucca Mountain issue. The polling out of Arizona says voters are very concerned about forests and water; Wisconsin polls have shown that the mercury issue could hurt [the GOP]," he said.
Hence the Bush campaign's efforts to neutralize the environment as an election issue: "They know they can't persuade voters that Bush is good on the environment, so they're trying to create enough confusion about Kerry's record that people decide it can't be the issue that decides their vote," said Pope.
Kerry strategists agree. "The Bush campaign has got Kerry written all over it," said Roger Ballentine, a senior environmental strategist for the Kerry campaign. "From Day 1, the goal of the Bush campaign has not been to get voters to like their candidate and respect his record, but to get people to dislike John Kerry even though on this issue Kerry is widely thought to be the greenest candidate America has ever seen. They want people to go into the voter booth, hold their nose, and pick the lesser of two evils."
Bush campaign spokespeople failed to return repeated calls, but a quick glance at the George W. Bush campaign website confirms that Bush's strategy is Kerry-centric. The homepage is a montage of derisive cartoons and photographs of the opponent. Here's Kerry playing the "Flip-Flop Olympics," there's a "Kerry Gas Tax Calculator," which claims to compute how much a 50-cent-per-gallon gas tax would cost individuals (a tax, mind you, that Kerry has repeatedly said he has no intention of imposing). Not a single image of the president himself graces the page.
The Kerry website looks remarkably similar – photos of Kerry abound, only the depictions are more flattering. It has only a low-placed and somewhat defensive nod to Bush, saying, "The Bush-Cheney campaign is running one of the most negative and misleading campaigns ever."
A comparison of the two campaigns' press releases is even more telling. Thus far in the month of August, the Bush campaign has churned out 18 releases dealing with energy and the environment, nearly all of them roasting Kerry, with titles along the lines of "THE RAW DEAL: John Kerry: 'Brought to You by Special Interests.'"
The Kerry campaign, meanwhile, has put out a total of six releases on energy and the environment. While they all slam Bush's rollbacks, at least half of each is devoted to the Democratic candidate and his campaign promises. One representative headline: "Kerry Pledges to Make Decisions Based on Sound Science and Put Public Health and Safety First."
Most of the Bush team's environment-related releases rely on one of two tired claims – that Kerry is a flip-flopper, or that creating jobs and protecting the environment are incompatible goals. An Aug. 6 release charged that Kerry's plan to raise corporate average fuel-economy (CAFE) standards "will eliminate 104,000 jobs." It derided Kerry for supporting the McCain-Lieberman bill on global warming, asserting, "Climate Stewardship Act Is a Job Killer." And it accused the Democratic candidate of having "killed American jobs" because he didn't vote for the Bush energy plan.
These charges have, to put it delicately, little basis in fact. The 104,000 figure, for instance, was plucked from a brief and informal analysis commissioned by General Motors and drafted single-handedly and without peer review by a professor from Pennsylvania State University. Team Bush ignores the fact that higher CAFE standards have won support even from many members of the United Auto Workers union, who agree with more authoritative studies showing that tightening fuel-economy standards would in fact create jobs.
Last week, a release criticized Kerry for past votes that favored designation of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a repository for high-level nuclear waste. While Kerry has voted in favor of a few bills that included procedural measures on Yucca, his opposition to the project has been consistent, and he has repeatedly pledged that there would be no dumping at Yucca during his presidency. "Kerry Voted for 'Screw Nevada' Bill," the release proclaimed – rather bizarrely, as Bush staunchly supports the Yucca Mountain dump, which most Nevadans oppose.
Another baffling release mocked Kerry's position on forest protections (which enviros insist has been strong and consistent): "Where does John Kerry stand on forest policy? No one really knows, because he's taken every side of every important forest issue," read the statement by Bush campaign spokesperson Danny Diaz. It hinges on a comment Kerry made to The Wall Street Journal that he "like[d] a lot of parts" of Bush's Healthy Forests bill, though he didn't in the end support it (as if any astute politician should OK a bill chockful of objectionable provisions simply because a few parts are agreeable).
The few Bush campaign press releases that do tout the president's environmental initiatives, such as this one on his national park policy, use angry and defensive language even as they try to make a positive point: "John Kerry and his extremist allies have issued a torrent of false charges and distortions about the president's record on parks."
The Kerry campaign insists that it has no interest in joining in the mud-slinging. "To our minds, these preposterous screeds work to our advantage," Ballentine said. "Quite obviously, the Bush campaign is shooting itself in the foot with this nonsense. Their anti-environment record is too long, too strong, and too wrong at this point for greenwashing."
Mark Longabaugh, senior vice president for political affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, concurred: "It's so desperate, so rhetorically over the top, that if any voter actually ever read one of these things, they'd think, 'These folks need a sedative.'"
But there's a good reason the Bush campaign has resorted to negativity. In mid-July, when it tried to tout Bush's environmental record in a "fact sheet" of "Key Bush Environmental Accomplishments," the press ignored the list and a number of major environmental organizations issued scathing, point-by-point rebuttals.
Strategically speaking, the negative screeds really aren't about the environment anyway, according to Kevin Curtis , a vice president at National Environmental Trust: "They are not attacking Kerry on the environment, they are attacking him on this predetermined theme of 'flip-flop.' They know voters' eyes will just glaze over the details and take one message from the attacks: Kerry waffles," Curtis said. "It's ruthless, but it's effective. These guys have message discipline like nobody's business."
Only time will tell whether voters are tiring of such tactics or whether the Bush campaign will, in the end, succeed in muddying the waters around what environmentalists say is a clear choice between a friend of the environment and a foe. After all, enviros argue, Bush never flip-flops on the environment: His support for industry at the expense of natural resources and public health has been numbingly consistent.