Bush and Kerry Channel Their Eco-Character

Election '04

At a time when the man commonly derided by greens as the worst environmental president in U.S. history is up for re-election, it's perplexing that the most publicly discussed environmental issue of the campaign right now is Yucca Mountain – a molehill in the grand scheme of America's environmental problems.

Of course, dumping nuclear waste in this Nevadan outpost is a genuine concern – particularly for, say, Nevadans. But nationally speaking, even many enviros are ambivalent on the issue; as a whole, the green community has put forward no clear alternative plan of action. Enviros have far stronger and more unified objections to, say, Bush's failure to address global warming, or his sweeping rollbacks of protections for air quality, drinking water, forests, and wetlands – yet rarely are these issues discussed in the campaign context.

Yucca seems to have hogged more airtime and headline space in the last four months than in the last four years. In the last few weeks alone, The Washington Post, The New York Times, ABC, MSNBC, and various other national news outlets have run stories fueling the Yucca controversy. The Kerry and Bush campaigns have issued a number of press releases and statements bashing each other's positions on the issue; John Kerry staunchly opposes the dumping, while President Bush supports it. As of this week, both candidates will have made four visits each to Nevada – which Bush took by 4 percentage points in the 2000 election – to rally voters.

On Monday, Associated Press reporter John Heilprin went so far as to argue that Yucca is the only green issue with enough emotional immediacy to convince a critical mass of red voters to cast a blue ballot: "Nevada, where Bush wants to entomb a half-century's waste from atomic power plants, is the only state where an environmental issue can realistically swing the outcome [of the election], according to environmental leaders and political analysts."

Really? We tried to hunt down those "environmental leaders," but couldn't find one who agreed with that contention.

"By no means is Yucca the final, or only, environmental frontier in this election," said Mark Longabaugh, senior vice president of political affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, which is investing up to $7 million in the election to help draw out environmental voters to defeat George Bush. "It's misleading to conclude that any particular issue will be more dominant or decisive than others. Issues are merely a way of getting voters to understand the larger themes of this race: George Bush sides with special interests at the expense of average citizens and the public interest."

Aimee Christensen, executive director of Environment2004, which is putting up to $5 million toward rallying the green vote with very targeted messages in swing states, agreed that specific issues are primarily a device for illustrating a larger message: "We're addressing local issues, but really what we're trying to get voters to understand is that George Bush is neither compassionate nor conservative. Conservation is deeply ingrained in the Republican ethos, and Bush is betraying his Republican roots."

Republican pollster Frank Luntz (the same Luntz who penned the 2002 memo leaked to The New York Times in which he argued that the environment "is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general – and President Bush in particular – are most vulnerable") also said that swing-state victories will not be decided on Yucca Mountain or any other issue: "This is not an issue-based election," he said. "It's going to be decided on presidential image, on personal attributes. Kerry's weakness is not based on his position on the issues at all – it's based on perceptions of his leadership skills, on concerns that he's weak-minded, indecisive, on three sides of every issue."

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake added that "one of the things that Republicans have been better at doing than the Dems is using issues as character frames. That's clearly a very, very important component of what we need to get in the election in the next 50 days." Lake added that voters see the environment, in particular, as a character-defining issue: "It's a positive for Kerry because people think that candidates who are good on the environment also have integrity and courage – you have to stand up to special interests and protect the little guy, you have to be a truth teller. That's why the Dems need to go on the offensive with this – to frame [Kerry's] character in this context."

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, also said that environmental issues are a potent tool for illustrating values: "It's about issues to the extent that we have to tell a good story at the door in Wisconsin. If you go there and say, 'Kerry has a 96 percent LCV rating,' they'll say, 'Big whoop.' If you say, 'George Bush is the worst environmental president since William McKinley,' big whoop. But they listen if you say, 'Did you know that George Bush has delayed cleaning up that mercury-infested fish in your backyard for 10 years and got huge campaign contributions from the power companies that didn't want to clean up?'"

Whether it's mercury contamination in the waterways in Wisconsin and Florida, pumping water out of the Great Lakes in Michigan, or road-building in the forests of Arizona and Oregon, environmentalists "need to make it a window onto the character issue," Pope said. The Sierra Club is putting an estimated $5 million toward its get-out-the-green-vote effort, the bulk of which will be spent in the month leading up to Nov. 2.

Though Luntz now insists that the environment will play a negligible role in this election, he pinpointed what could be another Bush weakness: "Most Americans today consider themselves anti-big business," Luntz said. "Americans are simply anti-big. Anti-big government. Anti-big media. Anti-big corporations. We like small business, small government, independent television. We're for the underdog, the little guy."

Leave it to Luntz to lay out the strategy for the next six weeks of the Kerry campaign. Catering to big business could be to Bush what flip-flopping is to Kerry – his most serious perceived character flaw. Virtually every environmental issue, from Arizona's forests to Yucca's nuclear waste, lends itself to this message – which, unlike the flip-flopping charge, is not just spin.

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