Republicans Talk, But Don't Walk Green

With the supposedly moderate Whitman out, Bush will redefine his approach to the environment -- a critical battleground in 2004. Of course, Republicans aren't going to change their environmental policies -- just how they talk about them.
Christie Todd Whitman has resigned as the EPA Administrator at a time when Republicans themselves recognize the environmental issue as "the single biggest vulnerability for the Republicans and especially for George Bush." Bush's choice to replace Whitman will offer a clear indication of how the White House plans to handle this vulnerability as it approaches the 2004 election -- and of how the president's opponents might exploit it.

The quote in the preceding paragraph comes from Frank Luntz, a top GOP strategist; his specialty is crafting messages that sell a political candidate or ideology to the voters. In a memo leaked earlier this year to the New York Times, Luntz further warned that the Republicans "risk losing the swing vote ... [and that] our suburban female base could abandon us." Since the swing vote -- those middle-of-the-road voters with no great loyalty to either of the two major parties -- is where the 2004 election is likely to be decided, the environment promises to be a crucial battleground over the coming eighteen months.

It's not hard to see why Republicans are in trouble on the environmental front. The environment has become a mom-and-apple-pie issue in the United States, and the Republicans are on the wrong side of it. According to a Gallup poll released in April, sixty-one percent of Americans say they are either active participants in or sympathizers with the environmental movement. Eighty percent favor stricter emissions standards for business. Only seven percent endorse the Bush-Cheney view that government is regulating too much.

But that hasn't stopped the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress from doing all they can to relax environmental regulations. Whether it's more arsenic in drinking water, killing the Kyoto protocol, pushing for expanded logging and limited wilderness, or putting industry executives in charge of dozens of regulatory agencies, Bush has pursued the most nakedly pro-corporate agenda in memory.

Christie Todd Whitman was the supposedly moderate Republican whose job it was to make these policies appear reasonable. Mainstream green groups unwittingly played along with the ruse, talking as if Whitman were genuinely committed to the environment and repeatedly expressing their disappointment at her failure to stand up to the White House's slash and burn approach.

But Whitman was never as green as enviros liked to think. During her tenure as New Jersey governor, she had instituted many of the policies that Bush has pursued as president, including corporate self-audits and drastically reduced oversight and fines of industrial polluters. As EPA Administrator, she continued to work against meaningful environmental regulation while running afoul of conflict of interest laws.

On Earth Day 2002, the EPA's former public interest advocate, Robert J. Martin, resigned as EPA Ombudsman after clashing with Whitman over a Superfund clean-up agreement that would have saved Citigroup -- a principal investor in Whitman's husband's venture capital firm -- up to $93 million. Martin alleged that Whitman ordered his office reassigned within the EPA bureaucracy and stripped of its independence after he opposed a nuclear-waste cleanup settlement with Citigroup that would limit the firm's liability to a fraction of the true cleanup cost. Whitman denied the charges, but has been dogged by a continuing investigation of the matter. That investigation has also focused on Whitman's questionable statements after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when she assured residents that the air of Manhattan was safe, even though EPA had not done adequate testing to support such claims.

So, with Whitman gone, what's next? For his part, Frank Luntz doesn't want Republicans to change their environmental policies -- just how they talk about them. He advises them to use words like "common sense," "sound science," and "balance." Republican candidates should call themselves "conservationists." They should stress how much they love national parks. They should assure voters that they favor environmental protection but simply believe that local people, not Washington bureaucrats, should be in charge.

Luntz's message seems to be getting through. The White House included a pitch for hydrogen fueled cars in this year's State of the Union address. (Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain pointing out that the hydrogen in question would be generated by burning more fossil fuels.) And in April, just in time for Earth Day, came the birth of an environmental alliance between a Republican advocacy group and one of the nation's largest labor unions.

The new organization's name, the Labor Environment Alliance, sounds positively left-wing. It brings together the International Brotherhood of Teamsters with the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, and it promises to lobby for "responsible environmentalism that walks hand in hand with job creation." Specifically, the Alliance says it supports reduced emissions, brownfields redevelopment, more highway construction, and increased domestic energy production. As such, it enthusiastically backs the Bush-Cheney energy plan, with its overwhelming bias towards fossil fuel and nuclear production. In words that would doubtless please Frank Luntz, the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy praised the plan as "balanced, comprehensive and environmentally responsible."

Of course, it wasn't that long ago that the Teamsters were marching arm in arm with environmentalists and other progressives in the historic globalization demonstrations in Seattle in 1999. But the romance of Turtles and Teamsters was never consolidated into a real working marriage. The modern Teamsters have always been conservative, and they were early endorsers of the Bush-Cheney energy plan. The rupture with enviros now seems final. Meanwhile, most other unions still maintain at least cordial relations with the big environmental groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, even if the so-called Blue-Green Alliance sought by numerous union and environmental leaders has yet to jell into the powerhouse initially envisioned.

At the same time, parts of Bush's right-wing base will remain resistant to even talking green. Many on the right disdain environmentalism as today's equivalent to socialism. For them, global warming is still liberal hokum, and drilling for oil and gas in Alaska is imperative not so much for the resources themselves as for asserting the principle that nothing should be off-limits to the market's appetites. Blinded by their ideological biases, they don't see the political risk in Bush's environmental policies. Paul Weyrich, the president of the Free Congress Foundation, has argued that Republican electoral prospects should be fine as long as the body count doesn't get too high: "There's a risk with some of the swing voters, but unless something happens where lots of people turn up dead before the election, these issues are not going to resonate with lots of voters."

These are the same right-wing voices who carped at Christie Todd Whitman throughout her tenure, accusing her of doing too much to please the green lobby. Now, expect them to pressure the White House to appoint a replacement more to their liking. One name circulating in the capital's rumor mill is Josephine Cooper, chief operating officer of the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers. Just what America needs: an SUV lobbyist setting environmental policy.

But White House strategists may prove smarter than that. Frank Luntz is right: Republicans do need political cover against the public perception that they're in bed with corporate polluters. So as the 2004 campaign heats up, expect to hear lots of green rhetoric from Bush and his fellow Republicans. They will proclaim their love of the great outdoors and pledge to preserve and protect it. They will invoke the need for a common sense approach to the environment and economics, and they will thank their labor union allies for showing that good jobs and clean air and water go together.

In short, Republicans will show they understand that in modern America any politician who sounds indifferent to the environment invites defeat on Election Day. But to talk the talk on the environment is one thing. Before rewarding them with votes, citizens should insist that Republicans, and all candidates, walk the walk as well.

Mark Hertsgaard, a commentator for NPR's "Living on Earth" show, is the author most recently of "The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World" and "Earth Odyssey: Around the World In Search of Our Environmental Future."