The Boy Scouts Find A Compass

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Features: Election Preview '96, November 1996

The Boy Scouts Find A Compass
In the shrink-wrapped politics of the environment, it's not how far you go, but in what direction

By The Editors

"Clinton knows that if he wins in '92, he'll be judged four years later not on such Gorean esoterica as leak control in Eastern European natural-gas pipelines, but on how quickly and lastingly he turned around the sluggish economy."
--Outside, November 1992

Alas, there's no way to put this delicately... Told you so. Despite running one of the most environmentally talky campaigns in many years, when Bill Clinton opened shop on Pennsylvania Avenue four years ago he did so less as an environmentalist than as an economic enabler. Admittedly bold initiatives--scaling back subsidies for logging, mining, and grazing; creating an energy tax--quickly got jettisoned when the gummy politics of these plans threatened to impede Clinton's ability to pass significant economic curatives. No matter. It wasn't as if the man from Hope was really the Great Green Hope.
But Al Gore was. Having worn the earth on his sleeve throughout the campaign, the vice-president had disproportionately raised expectations among the choir with his nifty Big Opportunity talk: We Can Stop Global Warming! So when his exile came, it was especially embittering. How thin was the administration's environmental gruel those first two years? Gore was left with little except the expanded protection of the Mojave Desert to dine out on among environmental groups. Their responding quip to this flyweight accomplishment: Now we'll have more wilderness in which to wander.

But wait! It's election time once more, and can you guess what issue fires the electoral synapses of Bill and Al? Congratulations. Four years after the great retreat, the environment is once again hot--or at least convenient--politics. No campaign stop is complete without an ode to clean water, abundant wildlife, and the evils of toxic waste. Even Republicans are playing this time, making nice with nature, blithely ignoring their own party's steamrolling legislation in the 104th Congress. And Al Gore? Al is ascendant, a hoped-for figure once again to aspiring environmentalists and the Democrats' presumptive choice for Campaign 2000. So fast has this rebound occurred that one is left with two aching questions: How'd this happen? And does it mean anything?

By now, the story of Al Gore's 1994 Christmas party has been boiled down to a syrupy eco-myth. Here it is: A hundred or so revelers, cheeks ablaze with nog, Gore working the room. When he reaches Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope, he asks Pope and a few other influential environmental-group leaders to follow him. They summit in a private room and plot a kind of "secret war." Its overt goal: to reinvigorate environmentalism in a disinterested Clinton White House. Its sleepy but deadly weapon: polling data.

Any trace residue of environmentalism that may have lingered, post-campaign, in Clinton's brain had been burned away when the Republicans marched on Congress in the fall of '94. The president's hovering consultants cried that the GOP sweep was evidence that people were fed up with big-government intrusions. Cozying up to the greens, they argued, would infect the president with the deadly squishy-liberal bacilli. Clinton's pollsters, including Ëber-wonk Stanley Greenberg, produced data confirming this line. Spooked, the president retreated even further from his already modest stands, hoping to inoculate himself from future attacks. In the words of independent pollster Stuart Rothenberg, the environment was "a political zero."

But the statistics soon gathered by Gore's troops showed something else entirely: A huge majority of Americans thought the government wasn't doing enough to protect the environment.

Thus locked and loaded, Gore went on the offensive. "He kept bringing it [environmentalism] up, bringing it up, bringing it up, at every opportunity and in every discussion," says Timothy Wirth, undersecretary of state for global affairs. Always an intellectually supple politician, Clinton agreed to go green again--and in so doing, he effected a remarkable change in mainstream environmentalism. He made it a family value.

When he emerged from the cave, Clinton was nearly struck dumb. "Amazing," he sputtered. "Just amazing." Yellowstone National Park superintendent Mike Finley had taken the vacationing president on a private trip, without aides or network cameras in tow, to a cave where a wolf had just birthed a litter of cubs. Finley's ploy was straight out of John Muir's book. In 1903, the founder of modern environmentalism used a similar trick on Teddy Roosevelt, who created the national park system after Muir took him camping in Yosemite. Aides say Clinton returned from his nature hike flushed with excitement, wanting to know if "the numbers" on the environment were still holding.

For a man skilled in the rhetorical art of wrapping acts of opportunism with ribbons of genuine emotion, the wolf tˆte-Ì-tˆte provided exactly the personal experience he required to soften what were, after all, political motives. Green could now be embraced, and on Clintonesque terms.

Environmental protections quickly ramped up within the Clinton-Gore reelection strategy, becoming one of the crucial Three E's (Education and the Elderly being the other two). The president's speechwriters now tuck outdoorsy-sounding gemstones into nearly every address Clinton delivers. To complete the happy tableau, advance teams plop the traveling presidential lectern before an endless succession of towering bluffs and babbling brooks, where wholesome adjectives like "clean" and "pristine" can be uttered without cognitive dissonance.

The president also now lards his speeches with environmental talking points, couching the heavy-lidded realities of the topic within a Wally-and-Beav suburban snapshot. To wit, this snippet from Clinton's convention chat: "Today ten million children live within just four miles of a toxic waste dump.... Our children should grow up next to parks not poison."

And although he peppers his more intimate talks to environmental groups with plenty of ambitious in-the-next-four-years spice--cleaning 500 toxic waste sites, for instance, and passing legislation to freeze assets of convicted polluters, funding the restoration of the Florida Everglades, swiftly vetoing the proposed "takings" and regulatory-reform bills--out in the real world this hustings environmentalism often becomes mere flag-waving jingoism. "Every time our family goes on vacation in a national park," Clinton nattered not long ago, "I thank God again for the good fortune of being an American."

Clever politics, as both Clinton's opponents and supporters are quick to admit. "Before this year, the environment had been associated with the fringe, with extremists," says Rothenberg, the editor and publisher of the well-regarded Rothenberg Political Report. "The Republicans had spread that image. But beginning with this campaign, the Democrats started making it a lifestyle, quality-of-life issue. They've begun using it as a symbol to prove how extremist the Republicans are. That's a nice ironic twist."

For sincere environmentalists, however, the nagging question remains: If reelected, will Clinton's battlefield conversion reverse itself? Will anything prevent him, in his next term, from ducking inexpedient environmental matters, once he's safely insulated from the voters' wrath?

"My take on the role environmentalism plays in the campaign versus how it would appear in policy?" asks James Pinkerton, adviser to Presidents Reagan and Bush and today an in-demand progressive Republican strategist (coiner of the once ubiquitous phrase "new paradigm"). "Environmentalism is a very useful tool for gaining electoral votes in California. Actual policy-making, on the other hand, makes plenty of political enemies."

So, should push come to slap with Congress over some contentious environmental matter, Clinton will probably again retreat rather then risk alienating a group that, based on his ability to work them, holds his historical standing in its well-manicured hands.

Still, an apparent sea-change has occurred within conventional environmental wisdom that should make Clinton (or Dole, for you gamblers) more aware of the true and lasting value of nature. And in a perverse way, the Republican Revolution may turn out to be the origin of this change. "Before the GOP Congress, people didn't pay any attention to environmental laws, because they thought they were safe," says an administration strategist. "Gingrich changed that. From now on, people will be wary of anyone--Clinton or Dole or anyone else--who tampers with protections." At the very least, Clinton can be trusted not to futz with the laws that Gingrich got burned trying to weaken.

Despite Clinton's new awareness, however, it's unlikely that if reelected the president will be rushing to raise mining or grazing fees or to reduce logging in old-growth forests. Wolf pups or no, Clinton's environmental ardor is mostly heated by public opinion, and the same polls that tipped Clinton to the fact that his constituents value clean air and water--and have a vague proprietary sense when it comes to those furry creatures they see on the Discovery Channel--also show that there are boundaries to such goodwill. Voters will protect nature only up to the point that it begins affecting their pocketbooks.

So where does that leave this newfangled lifestyle movement known as environmentalism? Probably looking toward 2000, and its best shot in generations at having anything more than a status-quo-plus greenie in the White House. His wooden luster restored from battle, Gore has already, silently, begun his campaign for the presidency. The Clinton administration is filled with Gore allies--EPA chief Carol Browner, Tim Wirth, Bruce Babbitt, the Council on Environmental Quality's Katie McGinty--who will certainly aid Gore as he preps for his own administration and his own brand of environmentalism. It's appropriate to wonder, though, whether even Good Al Gore might feel compelled to do some creative shading on his ambitions when an oval office is in the offing.

For this month, though, here is what's likely to happen: Clinton will win, Gore will quietly recede, and the earth will survive. Nature, after all, has a stubborn resilience that politicians would be wise to copy. Take, for metaphorical instance, the Clinton-Gore photo op on Earth Day this year. The two politicians showed up at a flood-damaged canal in Maryland to help clear debris. Donning natty work gloves, each grabbed one end of a thick tree stump and heaved. And strained. Photographers pressed in. Finally the president of the United States and his second-in-command managed to raise the stump and stagger with it a few yards. Reporters scribbled. Al Gore, glancing at his boss, grunted in a low voice: "Whoa, this is a heavy symbol."

Clinton, looking past him toward the photographers, grinned, held the log aloft for another second as flashes popped, and then let it fall with a thud.

Button illustration by Thomas Fluharty, Gore illustration by Josh Gosfield.

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