Is the Environmental Message Reaching Presidential Voters?
In a now-infamous memo, Republican pollster and environmental strategist Frank Luntz told GOP office seekers that it’s the buzzwords that matter. "The three words Americans are looking for," he wrote, "are "safer," "cleaner" and "healthier."" He advised candidates to tell audiences that they are "committed to "preserving and protecting" the environment, but that it "can be done more wisely and effectively.""
George W. Bush listens to Luntz. According to his website, www.georgewbush.com, "President Bush believes that good stewardship of the environment is not just a personal responsibility, it is a public value
His administration has acted in a comprehensive way to achieve impressive results. By almost every indicator, environmental quality in the United States is improving with cleaner air, water and land, and improved public health." The environmental page touts "clean and secure" hydrogen fuel, plugs the "Clear Skies" initiative as "clean air for the 21st century" and the "Healthy Forests" plan as "safeguarding people, wildlife and ecosystems." All of these initiatives have been blasted by green groups for actually doing the opposite of what their names imply, but it may be the buzzwords that reach the public.
The Bush campaign bolsters the President’s image with trips to national parks and other made-for-TV visuals. On Earth Day, he toured a marine reserve in Maine with his mother, and later he wielded a shovel to aid wetlands in the Everglades.
"Political advertising is now the major means by which candidates for the Presidency communicate their messages to voters," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s not surprising, then, that voters don’t give much thought to the candidates" environmental records. Or that green groups" carefully annotated, footnoted analyses that characterize President Bush as the worst steward of the environment to hold the office don’t reach many uncommitted voters.
Partly because environmentalists are accorded a diminishing amount of serious media time, the percentage of Americans who say they worry a "great deal or fair amount" about environmental quality has dropped from 77 percent to 62 percent since March 2001, according to a recent Gallup Poll.
According to Gallup, "Environmentalists should know they are swimming upstream" because "the environment has been a relatively minor issue in Presidential elections." The survey, released last April, adds, "The relatively moderate declines in Bush’s environmental ratings suggest he is not especially vulnerable on the environment at this point."
When Bush took office in 2001, 51 percent told Gallup he would do a good job protecting the environment; last March, 46 percent thought he was doing well, a relatively minor drop in public approval.
Despite the polls, Chuck Porcari of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) says green issues should not be discounted as a potent force in November. "The word "environment" may not be among top-tier issues," he says, "but the environment is very much tied up in the campaign. Energy is an environmental issue. And chemical exposure is a big part of the health care discussion." LCV, an early Kerry endorser, has teams knocking on doors in four states, and plans to visit a half-million homes before November. It awarded President Bush an "F" for his first term.
The President’s record is assailed in such recent books as Strategic Ignorance by Carl Pope and Paul Rauber of the Sierra Club and Bush Versus the Environment by Robert S. Devine (see Tools for Green Living, this issue). The latter writes, "This administration has been profoundly involved with environmental matters and has fervently favored development over environmental protection. Few people realize this because most of the administration’s efforts have not made the news. But make no mistake. The White House quietly has been making fundamental regulatory and procedural changes that could unravel decades of progress in protecting human health, wildlife and natural places."
While this would presumably hand John Kerry, who has a strong pro-environmental record, a golden campaign issue, the Democrat doesn’t often talk about the issues, possibly because polls show green issues are not occupying a major part of the voters" (or the medias") attention. When asked, most people say the candidates have similar positions on environmental issues. Few voters are probably aware that Kerry spoke at the first Earth Day event in 1970, that he has a 96 percent rating from LCV, that he has worked for tougher fuel-economy standards and threatened to filibuster over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Similarly, third party candidate Ralph Nader has a strong environmental record, but coverage of his campaign focuses mainly on his potential as a spoiler who might help elect Bush.
"Corporate polluters have found that in the Bush administration the doors of government are wide open," Kerry said in a speech that was not widely reported. "Almost as soon as this administration took office they invited in the chief lobbyists to rewrite the very laws that were intended to protect our land, water and our air. And not surprisingly, the result was the biggest retreat on environmental protections in a generation."
Even groups that are normally friendly to Bush, like the libertarian Cato Institute, struggle for something good to say about his environmental record. "He has done relatively little harm to the environment," says Cato’s Jerry Taylor, who adds that Bush’s biggest failure "is to seriously consider long overdue reforms." Taylor notes, as does Bush’s homepage, that air and water quality appear to be improving, but critics point out that this is due largely to the effects of federal laws the Bush administration has worked determinedly to undermine.
Conservative commentators mainly ignore Bush’s environmental record. John Podhoretz" book Bush Country mentions the environment only in a brief aside on the "unfairness" of the Kyoto Treaty. Ann Coulter’s Treason contains one passing reference to the Environmental Protection Agency. Many leftist pundits, obsessed with civil liberties, foreign affairs and Iraq, also bypass the environment. Radio host Amy Goodman’s Exception to the Rulers excoriates Bush, but mentions the environment only in the context of oil-company pollution in Nigeria.
If environmental issues have an effect in November, it will probably be because of grassroots efforts from LCV, the Earth Day Network, Sierra Club and other well-organized groups. By bypassing the media, they might just get their message across.