The Boy Scouts Find A Compass
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Features: Election Preview ’96, November 1996
The Boy Scouts Find A Compass
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.