Postmortem for an Election—or the Earth?

John Haber
in New York City

I have a day job, of course, as (at the time I wrote this) editor for columbia earthscape, a digital library in the Earth and environmental sciences. In an essay already reprinted here on my personal Web site, it has given me occasion to reflect on the parallel dilemmas posed by multiculturalism to my dual lives, science and the arts, including educational priorities. Fortunately, it has also allowed me to hide my yearning for environmental justice behind, I hope, a less subjective report—on a close, compromised, and yet critical presidential election.

Art and science alike have a chilling aura of authority—in science as substitute religion and the museum as its own muse. More often than not, however, each lies essentially powerless before political diatribes, popular ridicule, and serious money. In that sense, the election could stand for the state of both.

Weeks after I wrote on an election already over, the outcome still stood undecided. I have let that tone stand. Perhaps the uncertainty made my fears for the future all the more pointed. Along with campaign Web sites, this report points to additional information and documentation from The New York Times. You may be asked for a user name and password to view its articles, but registration is free of charge.

Campaign 2000: The Eco-Impact

We were in high spirits. It was months before election day 2000, and not only was the state of the Earth on the line. The voters and the candidates, we were sure, were also listening.

Who cares?

Environmental groups everywhere readied for a fight, with the funds to back it up. Voters, a poll showed, weighed green issues heavily. Like The New York Times in a lead editorial, America seemed to agree that "the attitude of the White House" toward "protecting the Earth" would be "decisive." Ballot initiatives across America hoped to target urban sprawl, and the League of Conservation Voters named dozens of key races, pointing to Congress's failing scorecard when it comes to the planet. In a cartoon video, one nonprofit group even begged us to imagine a bear trying to vote! No wonder the candidates all boasted of environmental victories, and one had made it his signature issue. George W. Bush debating Al Gore on global warming (Campaign 2000)

The morning of November 8, like much of the nation, we awoke in a daze. The longest campaign in history was not over yet, and it was not going away without a fight. A tight race, haunted by an actual Green party, looked tighter than ever. The electoral count had come down to Florida, where the Greens seemed certain to draw the deciding votes. Besides, in a two-party race Oregon, New Hampshire, and New Mexico would no doubt have turned the race around well before Florida began its troubled recount.

So there you have it, a dramatic election that began and ended with a spotlight on the environment. Or did it?

If he can withstand legal challenges, George W. Bush will have won, despite a highly criticized record on clean air, plus a pledge to allow drilling in the Alaskan wilderness. In a presidential debate, with questions from actual voters, not one asked about these issues. Both Bush and Al Gore stuck closer to the center, away from strong advocacy. Oregon and Washington may have hinged on environmental voters, like those Gore addressed late in October. Yet neither state affected the electoral total.

New York voters rejected a bond issue, leaving backers concerned how plans for mass transit can survive. Measures to oppose urban sprawl also failed in Arizona, Colorado, Washington, and Missouri. Even Ralph Nader dismissed the Kyoto protocol as a meaningless compromise, far too "watered down" to serve as a campaign issue. In any case, his Greens fell short of the 5 percent needed to obtain federal matching funds in future campaigns.

What difference, then, did the environment make? Even more important, what difference will the election make to the environment? As The Times wrote in another editorial, "Whichever side one favors, the Texas governor and the vice president offer as stark a choice on the environment as was ever put on view in a presidential contest." Start with a look at, at least initially, the seeming winner.

The Republicans

George W. Bush positioned himself as a "compassionate conservative," but will that compassion extend to the Earth? If indeed elected, will the Texas governor aim for balance, or is he consistently anti-environmentalist, speaking for a party that has long ignored the planet?

Bush blasted Gore for neglecting the nation's parks, and he pledged billions in federal support. The Republican nominating convention took particular care to reach right and center, and the party plank, too, put Republicans "in the proud tradition of Teddy Roosevelt, the first president to stress the importance of environmental conservation."

Nonetheless, the Republican platform turned to the states, not the federal government, for "their unique ability to solve problems at the local level." In fact, the platform first invokes the environment to speak of "an environment in which innovation can flourish," before turning to apparently more pressing matters: "just as environmental pollution affects our physical health, so too does the pollution of our culture affect the health of our communities."

On the campaign stump, Bush criticized the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts: "I don't think you can litigate clean air and clean water. I don't think you can legislate clean air and clean water." The party Web site sounded stronger still, urging Washington to "probe EPA, not the oil refineries." While Texas state commissioners pledged to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, Bush's own site said that the causes of global warming need further study.

Bush's record as governor anticipated his electoral stance. One can see why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made an extraordinary offer in the summer of 2000: it asked to clean up Bush's home state, starting in Houston, which faced fresh federal sanctions for its nation-leading air pollution—plus loud battles over its smog plans. Residents stay indoors to avoid dirty air, and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission has charged that Bush's program of voluntary goals has done little or nothing. At a Wisconsin rally and again in Tampa, Gore called global warming a "moral issue" and asked why Bush "put a lobbyist for the chemical manufacturers in charge of enforcing the environmental laws." A Boston-based group, too, has linked power-plant soot to Texas deaths. Meanwhile, the oyster industry suffers from nearly 300 miles of red tide along the Texas coastline.

Ralph Nader, too, slammed Bush as "a corporation disguised as a person," adding as evidence, "Look at Houston—if you can look at it." Conversely, the oil industry strongly supported Republican plans for more extensive drilling.

Bush's vice-presidential choice, Dick Cheney, faced similar charges over his record. Cheney, despite some pre-election interest in alternative fuels, voted consistently against clean air and water, often among only a handful of senators. Critics have also scrutinized his involvement in so environmentally significant an industry as oil.

In the end, Bush promised what campaign aides termed "a new era of environmental protection," giving states more control and less "micromanagement" from Washington. That approach to federalism could affect more than just legislation and enforcement in the years ahead. It could have an even more potent environmental impact through the Supreme Court. The day of the election, the Court ruled against taking regulation of the Clean Air Act's "uncompromising" standards away from the federal government, a question for Virginia and Illinois landfills. Judicial appointments may yet change the picture.

The Democrats

Bush's opponent pledged that he has "never backed down" from fighting polluters and "the silent, rising tide of global warming." Had Al Gore earned that pledge, and would challenges to Florida's balloting in fact make a difference? Despite a strong public voice on the environment, some critics still had their doubts. Al Gore debating George W. Bush on oil (Campaign 2000)

An unusually active and influential vice president, Gore had lobbied President Clinton early on to take up the cause of "his baby," the environment—on high gasoline mileage, the Kyoto protocol, the Clean Air Act, and less visible issues as well. The Democrat's platform stressed public transit and wetlands protection, to protect "the cleanest environment in decades," and keynote speakers made the issue a centerpiece. In accepting his party's nomination, Gore's opening anecdote of serving in Congress described a family frightened by toxic waste: "our children should not have to draw the breath of life in cities awash in pollution."

On the very eve of his nominating convention, Gore invoked a classic that inspired environmentalism, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. In the ticket's campaign Web site, Gore added that he wore attacks on his book, Earth in the Balance, as "a badge of honor." For Gore, then just turning 40, writing it was an act of self-examination and self-revelation. It also sounded the alarm about global warming, then an obscure issue, and recommended retiring the internal combustion engine for good.

Years later, in what may prove to have been his final Earth Day address, the candidate spoke of the opportunity to develop a new generation of vehicles. He also pointed to Clinton administration actions that stood up to congressional fire. In just the month before the election, the president obtained a boost in environmental spending, signed a bill protecting the Oregon wilds, set aside California desert lands as a national monument despite industry threats to sue, vetoed a water bill as insufficiently eco-friendly, and vowed to veto more Republican legislation blocking environmental initiatives. In that very same time span, the Clinton Transportation Department unveiled new pipeline-safety rules, the Interior Department got ready to put into action that environmental-funding bill after House compromises, Secretary Bruce Babbitt signed a huge measure protecting Nevada's Red Rock Canyon, the Department of Energy committed funding to cut greenhouse gases, and the EPA moved to tighten wetlands protections.

Gore's running mate, Joseph Lieberman, sounded the same themes. In a Texas community Lieberman stood with a cancer survivor and others who spoke of foul air and water from nearby industrial plants. In a message he repeated to Wisconsin voters, the candidate said that "the record here shows Governor Bush has failed to lead." Lieberman, an observant Jew, called the environment "the work of God," a theme of Gore's book as well. He stressed Gore's record in protecting it, warning that "Governor Bush has too often chosen to side with the polluters." Lieberman's own Senate voting record rated 95 percent with the League of Conservation Voters, while Cheney scored only 13 percent. Joseph Lieberman speaking on the environment (Campaign 2000)

Nonetheless, even Gore aides paid homage to Ralph Nader's record, while protests termed Gore's environmental plank middle-of-the-road and his forest policies cautious. For Bush supporters, Gore's calling environmental protection "the central organizing principle for civilization" signaled poor judgment. For Nader's contingent, it stood for a broken promise and outright betrayal.

Crisscrossing Manhattan, and again in a major policy statement, Nader focused hard on just those issues. After two terms of Democrats in office, his campaign Web site began, "the epidemic of silent environmental violence continues." While largely agreeing with Gore on logging and global warming, he vowed to "crack down on polluters, strengthen emission standards, and promote increased use of renewable energy sources." He and Gore even traded charges over something they share—stock in Occidental Petroleum, which has plans to drill in a Colombian rain forest claimed by the indigenous U'wa tribe. Gore, added a chief advisor, called the president of Colombia personally late in the campaign, to oppose the company's plans.

The debates

No moment in the campaign raised more expectations—and drew more viewers—than the televised debates. Bush and Gore faced off alone, and their distinct approaches to the environment triggered sometimes angry exchanges.

In their first debate, they certainly came out swinging. The weekend before, a refuge within the Arctic Circle had entered the race. Bush had pledged to increase logging and to open the arctic wilderness to oil drilling, with royalties to aid preservation. In reply, Gore had claimed that the proposal would bring "decades of environmental damage to reap just a few months of increased oil supply." Head to head in Boston, they went right at those issues.

Gore called for "new investments in clean coal technology" and domestic exploration, but not in what he again and again termed "precious . . . environmental treasures." He also asked for tax incentives to put America on the "cutting edge of the new technologies" in "more efficient, cleaner energy." Bush replied by favoring "an active exploration program in America." He also came out "against removing dams in the Northwest" and in favor of coal mining. Both candidates pronounced themselves pleased with the debate.

Despite a more restrained tone in their second debate, Gore stuck by his plea of nearly a decade ago for "the rescue of our environment." He asked America to take the "leadership role" on global warming and rapidly rising pollution levels: "the old argument that the environment and the economy are in conflict is really outdated." It marked a message he was to repeat on the campaign trail, saying that "we can create . . . technology to stop the pollution and lift standards of living at the same time." Bush countered that his state had cleaned some 450 abandoned industrial sites, and "not all wisdom is in Washington." He refused "the burden for cleaning up the world's air."

The candidates then sparred over Bush's environmental record as Texas governor and the very reality of global warming. "Look," Gore concluded," the world's temperature's going up, weather patterns are changing, . . . and what are we going to tell our children?" In one more sign of a politer exchange, he summed it all up for both sides: "we differ on whether or not pollution controls ought to be voluntary." Bush ventured that "some of the scientists, I believe, . . . haven't they been changing their opinion a little bit?" (Of course, any educated voter could easily find the resources to know for certain the science of climate change.)

The final debate pretty much sidestepped the environment. Not one of those undecided voters asked about it from the floor. Gore did, however, manage to work in some praise for the family farm as most closely in touch with "conservation and protection of the environment." Small farmers, he argued, can best judge when "not to plow a field that is vulnerable to soil erosion." Bush agreed that "every day's Earth Day if you own the land," but he turned that into support for the farm industry more generally.

The sole vice-presidential debate echoed them both. Lieberman vowed to defend a strategy "aimed at developing alternative, cleaner sources of energy, aimed at giving tax credits to individuals and businesses to conserve and use energy more efficiently." Cheney asked instead for a more "balanced" approach to oil drilling and a more "comprehensive energy policy."


Environmentalists obviously approached Gore's candidacy with high hopes, but also very high standards, after his years as what the League of Conservation Voters calls "a leading voice for environmental protection." They also gave Bush bitter scrutiny.

The Sierra Club with plenty to spend on candidates, naturally made the biggest election news among environmental groups. Its endorsement called Gore the most pro-environment candidate of modern times, and its executive director turned up along with other environmental activists at a late-October campaign stop in Oregon, a swing state with a history of environmental concerns. Also choosing Gore over Ralph Nader, but with greater reluctance, Friends of the Earth said that Bush would "plunge us into a dark age" of environmental policy. Groups like these were already suing him and the state of Texas to enforce neglected environmental legislation.

Lieberman also picked up high praise from environmental groups, based on his support for—and, indeed, authoring of—key legislation. Accepting the nomination, he pledged to ensure that "a child can drink a glass of water" without health risks.

Groups backing Gore denounced the Green Party as a spoiler and begged Nader to leave swing states to the vice president. They rankled at Nader's claims that a Bush victory would galvanize environmentalism. Writing for The New York Times, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., lawyer for the National Resources Defense Council, went so far as to argue that the choice between Gore and Bush made a vote for Nader "irresponsible."

The Sierra Club endorsed another Clinton as well, this time a quick winner. In backing Hillary Clinton's race for senator from New York, it argued that Rick Lazio had "dropped the ball." In fact, just days before the election, Lazio was in the uncomfortable position of withdrawing under fire an attack on the Kyoto protocol. He had charged that Hillary Clinton favors "a radical environmental treaty." The Sierra Club also backed John Corzine in his successful campaign for senator from New Jersey. Kennedy, too, later endorsed Clinton for Senate, but the New York League of Conservation Voters remained torn almost till the end.

So did it matter?

At the very least, the Earth mattered in other local elections. In Washington the incumbent governor, Gary Locke, defeated the Republican contender, John Carlson. Speculation had Locke, a Chinese-American and supporter of dam breaching to protect salmon, on the inside track to Interior secretary in a Gore administration.

In Michigan, too, the backing of environmental groups helped carry the day. Debbie Stabenow narrowly unseated Spencer Abraham, a first-term Republican senator among the League of Conservation Voter's infamous "dirty dozen." Abraham had opposed measures to clean up Michigan's waters and stop toxic pollution. For the nation, however, the post-mortem will surely last longer than the long campaign and recounts put together.

Polls showed that voters agreed with Al Gore on the issues, while trusting George W. Bush more personally. But what did the polls—and voters—mean?

Did the outcome therefore mark the true legacy of Bill Clinton, Bush's easygoing charm or his misuse of language, his strong appeal to the party base of conservative voters or his poor grasp of detail, the success or failure of Gore to articulate a truly progressive stance, his dogged personality or his inept media makeovers, Ralph Nader's 3 percent or his alienating rhetoric, a fatter Republican wallet, an electorate too happy after two terms for the Democrats to care whether they won or lost, polling irregularities in Florida, shallow press coverage, or the final descent of democracy into the terms of a high-school class election? No one knows for sure. One can only say with certainty that environmental voters may well wish that the election's dizzying morning-after had never ended.

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This essay first appeared, in slightly different form, as my editor's commentary in the fall 2000 issue of Earth Affairs, the quarterly online-only magazine of columbia earthscape, itself a publication of Columbia University Press. In its original form, the images led one to clips from the candidates, in exclusive Web video from ABC NewsOne and the American Museum of Natural History.


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