The Absentee Issue

Could Kerry Have Won With Straight Talk on the Environment?

On Election Day, beginning a few minutes after midnight in Columbus, Ohio, Bryan Clark was working to get out the greens for Sierra Club Votes. He and 45 volunteers were putting orange-colored voting-day reminders on the doorknobs of citizens whom his group had reason to believe met the following qualifications: they cared about the environment, but they might be infrequent voters.

For organizations like Sierra Club Votes, a project of the national Sierra Club, and the Environmental Victory Project created by the League of Conservation Voters, efforts like Clark’s amounted to the most sophisticated attempt ever made by the environmental movement to identify green voters. By Election Day, Sierra Club Votes reported that 12,000 volunteers had knocked on more than one million doors in nine battleground states. The League of Conservation Voters reported that its volunteers had knocked on more than 1.2 million doors in five states.

In the 2004 presidential election, conservation organizations had confidence that environmental voters would support John Kerry. While Kerry was winning support of numerous conservation groups, President George W. Bush was receiving relatively little. The avowedly partisan Republicans for Environmental Protection, for example, makes political endorsements only of Republicans—including candidates in Congressional races—as part of its effort to support what its policy director, Jim DiPeso, calls "Theodore Roosevelt Republicans" who prize the conservation heritage of their party. In the fall issue of its journal, The Green Elephant, DiPeso’s organization announced what it called the "difficult—but ultimately unavoidable—decision not to endorse the sitting President of our party for re-election."

More affirmatively, the League of Conservation Voters portrayed John Kerry glowingly. When he received the League’s endorsement in early 2004, he had what its president, Deb Callahan, called a "nearly perfect" score on the report cards that the League has given to members of Congress since 1970: Kerry’s lifetime score was 96 percent. As a comparison, Callahan said, Al Gore’s lifetime score was only 64 percent.

In contrast to Gore’s near-silence on the environment during the 2000 campaign, John Kerry looked like he would "bring it on." Under a headline reading "Kerry Push, Unlike Gore"s, Will Attack on Environment," the New York Times in April reported that, in a "departure from the way the 2000 Presidential campaign unfolded, aides and advisers to Senator John Kerry say they intend to make the environment a central issue in this year’s election."

As months passed and Kerry’s environmental attacks seemed few, some observers thought Kerry’s time to address the environment would begin in October with the presidential debates, and particularly the so-called "town hall" debate in St. Louis, where citizens had a chance to pose questions.

Soon after the mid-point in that St. Louis debate, and just after President Bush had called Kerry the nation’s "most liberal" Senator, a Missouri resident posed the long-awaited environment question. "Mr. President," he asked: "How would you rate yourself as an environmentalist? What specifically has your administration done to improve the condition of our nation’s air and water supply?"

The President hit key points by which he defined his environmental program. After saying that his administration had reached an agreement to reduce by 90 percent the pollution from "off-road diesel engines" (which power farm tractors and construction bulldozers), he spoke of his support for "clear skies" and "healthy forests" and "clean coal" and a "hydrogen automobile." Moving to conclude, the President added: "I guess you’d say I’m a good steward of the land."

"Boy, to listen to that," Kerry began, "The President, I don’t think, is living in a world of reality with respect to the environment." Kerry seemed to be on message when he added, "Let me just say to you, number one, don’t throw the labels around. Labels don’t mean anything." But then his next words were: "I supported welfare reform. I led the fight to put 100,000 cops on the streets of America."

Kerry had swerved apparently backward to fight against being labeled liberal. When he returned late in his 90 seconds to the environment, he delivered quick hits on important air-quality issues. Trying to reach the issue of climate change in his last seconds, he said the Bush administration "pulled out of the global warming treaty, declared it dead, didn’t even accept the science." Bush responded by saying simply that the treaty "would have cost America a lot of jobs."

Nationwide, environmentalists watched in shock or began drafting messages to the Kerry campaign. DiPeso of Republicans for Environmental Protection jumped to his feet and began debating against the President on screen. He would have faced the President, DiPeso recalled later, and told him: "Mr. President, your policies are sickening and killing thousands of children and senior citizens around the country because you are not enforcing the law to clean up power plants. Your energy policy is leaving us further entangled in the world’s trouble spots and is endangering the security of our country. Your management of our public lands—our parks and forests—is a national disgrace. You are the worst environmental President this country has ever had."

It was 2000 all over again. In a 2004 talk at Yale, former Vice President Gore told students he had tried to raise the environment in speeches, and that Kerry was trying, but his words failed to get past what he called a "media filter."

A few weeks before the St. Louis debate, James R. Lyons, former under secretary for natural resources and environment in the Clinton administration, attended a strategy meeting at the headquarters of the Kerry campaign. Lyons asked for assurance that Senator Kerry would capitalize in the upcoming debates on "the clear differences between him and President Bush on the environment." He was given those assurances. But Lyons later concluded that Kerry "was being coached constantly to focus on other issues."

When asked what Kerry could have done to make the environment more of an issue, Kerri Glover, the Sierra Club’s national media director, said first: "He could have talked about it." But, she said, the Kerry campaign and the organizations working to get out the vote were just "following the polls" that indicated voters in 2004 cared more about such issues as war and terrorism.

On Election Day in Columbus, Clark arrived at the polls at about 7:30 am to find a line that forced him to wait more than two hours to vote. Clark didn’t realize then that in the coming hours many Americans would stay awake to watch the results of a national election decided by fewer than 140,000 votes—or a swing of about 70,000 voters—in Ohio.

Only when pressed did Clark suggest that the Kerry campaign—perhaps by hitting harder on the problem of air pollution and the potential for new jobs in Ohio from developing clean energy—co

uld have helped him. And was Ohio winnable?

"I think I would answer this way," he said. "I think the majority of Ohioans care very deeply about protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink, making sure that people who work hard get paid for what they’ve earned, making sure that kids have health care regardless of the kind of jobs their parents have, making sure that a citizen has equal access to good education to prepare them for the future. The problem is the Democrats didn’t talk about issues in that way." He paused again and then said: "At the end of the day, Ohio was winnable."