The environment is not at the top of the list of most voter concerns this election year. But Jeff Young reports some Democrats are betting that Bush’s environmental record will motivate enough people on Election Day to make a difference. Host Steve Curwood talks it over with former Clinton Administration official Carol Browner and Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway. Steve also turns to two members of the Green Party about whether or not the Greens should run a presidential candidate in 2004.
CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.
We begin this week’s show with a quote: “The environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general, and President Bush in particular, are most vulnerable.”
That bit of insight comes not from an environmental group or a Democratic hopeful, but from one of Washington’s top Republican strategists. His comment in a leaked memo stirred debate on the politics of environmental policy. And some campaign ads already on the air show the environment will be a campaign issue.
TELEVISION AD: President Bush – he’s raised millions from corporate polluters. Meanwhile, he’s weakened clean air standards, letting the power industry pollute the air we breathe, made taxpayers pay more to clean up toxic waste (fades under)…
CURWOOD: But how much of environmental concerns really translate into votes come election day? We’ll hear some informed but very different opinions on that from our studio guests today: Carol Browner, the EPA administrator for President Clinton, and Kellyanne Conway, a Republican strategist and pollster. And also joining the discussion is our Washington correspondent Jeff Young. Hi, Jeff.
YOUNG: Hi Steve, how are you?
CURWOOD: Good. Jeff. It seems from these television ads we heard that at least some groups are going after President Bush on this issue. Who’s leading the attack here?
YOUNG: Well, most of the major environmental groups in Washington, it seems, have cranked up some rhetoric about the Bush record. Especially those whose tax status allows them to do electoral politics, groups like the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters. But most interesting, I think, is a new group created specifically to target the environment in order to advance the Democratic candidate in the fall. And that’s a group called Environment 2004.
CURWOOD: Now, I remember hearing about the formation of this group. Who’s involved. Who are they?
YOUNG: Well, it’s some familiar names, some former Clinton administration officials, who are upset with the direction that environmental policy has taken since Clinton left office. Their headquarters is just about a two block walk from the White House. That’s where I caught up with the group’s director, Aimee Christensen. A few weeks ago, she was still unpacking office supplies and computers.
[SOUND OF BOX OPENING]
CHRISTENSEN: This is our main work space. We’ll be undoing the boxes – we’re getting tool boxes in to put pictures up on the wall so we can really have a real office that’s functional, ready to go.
YOUNG: Christensen is setting up shop amid dingy carpet and peeling paint in a less than fashionable Washington office building. The setting might be humble, but the group’s goal is lofty: they want to change the resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue by targeting voters with an environmental message.
CHRISTENSEN: And this can be the issue that tips it over the edge for them if they really understand how radical this administration has been, and there is this vast difference between the Republican leadership and this administration and the
Democratic leadership. That could be the argument that makes a difference for them in the election.
YOUNG: Environment 2004’s leadership reads like a roll call from the Clinton cabinet. Group chair Frank Loy was Clinton’s under Secretary of State for Global Affairs; board member Bruce Babbit was Secretary of the Interior; and the group’s leading speaker so far is Carol Browner, who led the Environmental Protection Agency through both Clinton terms.
BROWNER: We had eight years to really think about how best to go about securing clean air, clean water, toxic waste cleanup – how to do this job of public health and environmental protection. We are very concerned – alarmed, if you will -- that the kind of progress we were able to secure is being undone.
YOUNG: The environment seldom ranks high as a concern among voters when compared with defense, the economy, health care or education. But Democratic pollster
Celinda Lake says the environment is an area where the electorate is already uneasy about Bush.
LAKE: And people think that Bush is too tied to big business. When you’re looking for ways to illustrate that – that he’s really not on your side, that he’s too tied to big business and the wealthy – then the environment ends up being one of the more powerful areas where you can illustrate that.
YOUNG: But will that argument reach the small number of swing voters up for grabs?
Jerry Taylor, of the libertarian CATO Institute, says no.
TAYLOR: It’s very hard for me to imagine the voter who might otherwise be inclined to vote for George Bush, but who won’t do it simply because of a reform of new source review standards of the Clean Air Act [laughs]. I think what’s going on here is that there are people who have money who want to defeat Bush, and they’re looking for avenues of attack, and the environmental front is a good avenue of attack for them -- or at least that’s how they see it.
YOUNG: Taylor says that’s really no different from what politically active environmental groups do every four years. But League of Conservation Voters president Deb Callahan says 2004 will be different because Bush is different. The League gave Bush an “F” on its annual scorecard – a first – and Callahan says the sense of unity and anger among conservation groups is unprecedented.
CALLAHAN: Environmentalists are absolutely apoplectic about what the Bush administration is doing to our body of environmental laws and regulations. And I think it’s gonna be a sea change for environmental movement this election, and I frankly think the White House has awakened a sleeping giant and it isn’t very jolly.
YOUNG: The anti-Bush groups are betting a close election could come down to a few key voters in contested states – states where folks care about the outdoors, where scenic beauty and outdoor recreation support the economy – a state like Florida. Environment 2004’s first campaign focuses on Florida. They’ve detailed Bush policy impacts on the Everglades and coastlines for the Florida press, and had a strategy meeting with Florida’s senior senator, Democrat Bob Graham. And they’re counting on Carol Browner’s appeal in her native state.
BROWNER: Many Floridians care deeply about the quality of life, the quality of their environment – that’s, in part, why they choose to live in Florida. I think it’s important to remember though, that no election is about every voter. What Environment 2004 will be focusing on is those who have not made up their mind and are inclined to think the environment is an issue they should consider in making up their minds.
YOUNG: Four years ago, 97 thousand environmentally-minded Floridians did not vote Democratic. They voted for the Green Party’s Ralph Nader, something Browner’s group would like to avoid this year. So Environment 2004 has a lot to do: energize the party’s core supporters, fend off attacks from the Green left, capture swing voters in battleground states. Oh, and one more thing – collect and spend money that the Democratic Party can’t.
CURWOOD: Hey, thanks for that report, Jeff. And on your last point there, how much will the recent changes to campaign finance laws affect efforts like this, do you think?
YOUNG: Well, the McCain-Feingold law, of course, changed the whole landscape of political fundraising, specifically – or most importantly, rather – with the limits on the soft money contributions that parties can accept. Now, groups like Environment 2004 are in a position where they can take advantage of that, at least theoretically. They fall under a section of tax code that allows them to accept those soft money donations, and then they can also use what you might call the hard money, the direct donations, to air ads right up through the last days of the campaign.
CURWOOD: Well, Jeff, stay with us as we discuss this a bit further with our guests today. We have with us now Carol Browner, the former EPA administrator for President Clinton, and also Kellyanne Conway, who is a Republican pollster and strategist. Both of you, welcome to the program.
CONWAY: Thank you very much.
BROWNER: Thank you.
CURWOOD: So, Ms. Conway, what do you think? How much are Republicans vulnerable in environmental issues?
CONWAY: For any public official or candidate, ignoring the environment is hazardous to your political health. There’s no question that Americans care very deeply about the environment. That’s a fundamentally different issue than whether the environment has the type of political currency to make a difference in any one race, particularly a national election that seems so charged, if not polarized, by issues other than the environment.
Nobody can dispute that in all of the national polling, the environment is conspicuous by its absence. It is traditionally at one percent, two percent; sometimes it breaks two and a half percent in terms of the responses achieved through the open-ended question “what is the most important issue facing the country today?” Or, more to this point, “what is the issue that is going to be most important to you when deciding for whom to vote for president in 2004?” The environment conventionally ranks less than the margin of error of the entire poll.
This should not be confused with the matter that people don’t care about the environment. But frankly, polling questions that ask people if they, quote, “care about the state of drinking water,” or if they “want clean air,” are not biased questions -- they’re worse than biased questions. They’re useless questions. Because who can disagree with such notions as clean, fresh drinking water, clean air, pollution prevention?
What voters really -- who are environmentally minded -- are going to focus their attention on, in my view, is specifics and solutions. And the environment is one of those areas, over the last 25 to 30 years, where most Americans do believe progress has been made. They do believe their drinking water is fresher, they do believe their air is cleaner, they do believe emissions standards at the state and local levels have produced much better quality of life and quality of air and water. But at the same time, they are not so susceptible to the “shock the conscience” arguments.
In my view, the environmental groups are missing a tremendous opportunity to warm the heart rather than shock the conscience, with some of the environmental gains that have been made over the last several years. And by giving the current president an “F” on the environment really shows their hand in terms of trying to grapple with the new campaign finance reform measures and unseat him as president of the United States.
CURWOOD: Now, let’s look at the two sets of voters that I think certainly the Environment 2004 is aiming at. On the one hand, you have swing voters, people who are going to make a decision, maybe at the last minute, and are tipping – they don’t know what they want to do and anything could tip them over. On the other hand, you have a core constituency that may not have the environment number one, but it’s certainly very important, and these folks tend to be more civic-ly involved. Where do you think the Republicans are more vulnerable here, with that swing voter or with the core group?
CONWAY: Likely the vulnerability lies, for any Republican candidate, with the so-called swing voter. Because if you have already made up your mind in terms of the emotional extremes on the environment, chances are you are not going to support George W. Bush, or most candidates who have an “R” after their name to begin with.
Most of politics is played in the middle, and we are certainly a 49 percent nation, as has been observed by others in the political class, meaning, we are very divided as a country. It’s not meant to be polarized or partisan, necessarily, but we do have differing viewpoints. But where the environment has made a difference in elections, most recently, is at the state and local levels -- not at the federal or national level. Because the environment for many people is a closer to home issue. They believe that the closer you get to their back yard, literally if not figuratively, the more of a role that the closer levels of government have. So you will see people talking about the environment in terms of traffic congestion, perhaps gas prices, once and a while emissions standards. But that’s why Republicans at the executive level, say running for governor, are very sure to have a very clear and defined plan. And those who do not do that risk that at their own peril.
And there’s another reason for that. The vulnerability for any candidate that ignores the environment is that it shows that you have an insensitivity towards something that’s really a common denominator, that so many people do care about, and believe we all share – we share in its goodness and we also share in its responsible stewardship.
So, ignoring the environment also ignores some of the cultural indices that show many kids today learning an environmental agenda in the public school classroom, going home on the weekends and saying, gee, I want to do the Adopt-a-Highway program, or I want to bring the motor oil to be recycled or the diet Coke cans to be recycled. Whereas when other people were kids they said, gee, I want to do the dance-a-thon or the walk-a-thon. So, these cultural indices have demanded the political response, and any Republican who ignores it, or any candidate who ignores it, does so at their peril.
CURWOOD: We’re talking about the environment and the upcoming elections with Kellyanne Conway, Republican pollster and strategist. We’re also going to hear from Carol Browner, the former EPA administrator in the Clinton administration, and our Washington correspondent Jeff Young is also on the line with us. I’m Steve Curwood and you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Moby “Inside” PLAY (V2./Bmg -- 1999)]
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. And we’re talking about the environment and the upcoming elections with Kellyanne Conway, who’s a Republican pollster, and Jeff Young, our Washington correspondent, is also in the studio.
Carol Browner, who was the EPA administrator in the Clinton administration, is also with us. And I’d like to ask you, Administrator Browner, who are the voters who you think might be swayed by this? We’re talking about swing voters here. What demographic are you talking about? You have this group Environment 2004. Who are you looking for here?
BROWNER: I think one of the voters we’ll be looking at is the soccer mom. The mother of young children – perhaps one of her children is suffering from asthma. She notices on a hot summer day, when the pollution levels are higher, that her child’s asthma attack is made worse. I don’t think it’s every voter, but I think for that type of voter the failure of the Bush administration to clean the air, to continue the progress that we started, to enforce the laws of this nation, is a real issue.
YOUNG: I wonder – this is Jeff Young speaking – who do you think, among the Democratic candidates here, who do you think is best positioned to be able to do that?
BROWNER: Each and every single one of the Democratic nominees has distinguished – or Democratic contenders, if you will – has distinguished themselves on the environment. Whether as governor, whether as a senator, they have all been there willing to put the money in place, to put the laws in place, and to see those laws enforced. And the biggest letdown, or failure of the Bush administration, has been their unwillingness to enforce the laws.
CURWOOD: I’m curious, Kellyanne Conway, what you think of this? Which of the present Democratic candidates for president would cause the most problems for Mr. Bush around the environment, do you think?
CONWAY: It’s a difficult question to answer for a very simple reason. Unlike when Al Gore was running for president against George W. Bush, none of these candidates has staked one of their chief issues on the environment.
I would suggest that if you queried hard-core Democratic caucus-goers, or Democratic primary voters in Iowa, New Hampshire respectively, and just asked them a factual question – please complete the following sentence: Howard Dean’s chief environmental concern is blank? Or John Kerry’s stance on the environment is blank, blank. You would get a lot of shrugged shoulders and blank stares, I believe. If anything, they have all tried to show the shades of differences they may have with the president on the war, or on the economy, or once and a while with Medicare.
This seems, in my view, to be the chief challenge that anybody who wants to defeat this president on the environment will have is that you can attack him all you want, you can keep on -- as Administrator Browner has said three times just in this interview -- say the failure of the Bush administration, you can award him some “F” in some silly grading scale. But until you have someone who’s a fresh alternative who’s said here’s specifically how I would solve these problems in a more meaningful way, it’s going to be very difficult to pick up on any perceived vulnerabilities the president may have. And I don’t believe anybody with a straight face says that Al Sharpton has a plan on the environment that is better, or more preferred, for this country, that’s going to make us healthier and safer than what the Bush administration has done on the environment.
CURWOOD: I want to turn our attention to a poll that was done by the Quinlan organization, which I found fascinating. Jeff found this poll, and one of the things that it talks about is – they polled likely voters on Bush and the environment, and then tested three potential anti-Bush arguments.
Correct me if I’m wrong on this, Jeff, but they looked (a) at corporate, that is, emphasizing the president’s perceived favoritism towards polluting industries; (b) security, emphasizing the need for conservation to get us off of foreign oil and all the problems that seems to cause us; and then (c) values, which point to the need for support of natural places and National Parks.
And each message was pitted against a generic pro-Bush ad. At the end of the day, it turned out that when the president was attacked on his values, that voters actually preferred the president. Indeed, the only place that this approach gained any ground was going after the president on the question of corporate bias, that is…
YOUNG: Yeah, that’s where they found some swing in their favor. And it seems to me that the lesson there is you need to attack, and maybe that contributes to a negative atmosphere. Does attacking the president on his corporate ties in order to make a point about environmental policy lend to a negative atmosphere that could turn off voters? What do you think, Ms. Browner?
BROWNER: Well, first of all, I think there are the facts, and Environment 2004 is very interested in making sure voters have the facts -- that they understand what has happened to enforcement of the nation’s environmental laws, what is happening to our public lands, the kind of arrangements that are being made for special interests.
These are facts. This is not spin. These are all things that can be demonstrated in the policies and the day to day activities of the current administration, of the Bush administration. And I think when voters get that kind of information -- when they get it over a period of time, and they get it in a format that they are comfortable with -- it can in fact change their impression about what is happening.
CURWOOD: Ms. Conway, this poll seems to suggest that President Bush is vulnerable if he’s attacked on the environmental grounds that corporate favoritism has resulted in more pollution. Now, that’s not a local issue. I know you said earlier on that most environmental issues are local. But this is clearly a national issue. What do you think of this poll, this analysis, and how vulnerable do you feel the president might be on this question of corporate pollution and the environment?
CONWAY: The entire matter of big business in the last couple of years obviously has incurred the distaste, if not the wrath, of many voting Americans, and with good reason. But much of what has occurred in corporate America and with big business, if you ask the American people what bothers them most about it, they basically talk about the accounting frauds, the scandals, the individual actors.
If one is to make a nexus between what they perceive to be the president’s colleagues or friends in corporate America and his policies, then they’re going to have to make that nexus much more specifically than merely saying, “the failures of the Bush administration,” or “the man is vulnerable,” or “any Democrat is better.” Because what voters are looking for on the environment is specifics and solutions. And I’m yet to hear them today, and we’re often yet to hear them in many of the different type of very biased rhetoric that comes out of certain groups.
Again, I believe some of the environmental groups have missed a tremendous opportunity in trying to either attack the administration, or work with him on matters that people like soccer moms do associate with the environment -- namely homeland security. So, the president does get high marks for his handling of terrorism. Terrorism now necessarily includes, to soccer or security mom, keeping our water and our air supplies free from anthrax or free from some type of nuclear attack. The president gets high marks on that. You find very few Democrats who are vying to take his place at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue even bothering to attack him on those issues.
And if your are trying to reach that kind of swing voter, you can do it by shocking her conscience, but you also must necessarily, in my view, must warm her heart with very specific examples of what you will do, or have done, in your past life as governor, or senator, or congressman, or activist, to actually measurably, and specifically, solve an environmental problem, or make a difference in such a way that people believe you are a better alternative.
CURWOOD: Okay, there’s the challenge, Carol Browner. What do you say?
BROWNER: Well, I think the record, the failure to do right by the American people of the Bush administration, will carry the day with an important group of voters, the swing voters. I think, again, when they get the information about the failures of this administration to enforce the law, to clean up the toxic waste, to protect our air and water, to protect those things which make us a great country, there is a group of voters who will be persuaded and who will vote with the Democratic nominee.
CURWOOD: I want to thank you all for taking this time with me today. Carol Browner, former administrator of the EPA for President Clinton, thank you.
BROWNER: Thank you, Steve.
CURWOOD: Kellyanne Conway, Republican pollster and strategist, thank you also.
CONWAY: Thank you.
CURWOOD: Our own Jeff Young, who’s at our Washington bureau – thanks, Jeff.
YOUNG: Thank you, Steve.
CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood. You’ve been listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Gus Gus “Ladyshave” THIS IS NORMAL (Warner Brothers – 1999)]
CURWOOD: We’ve been talking about the environment and politics, and if there’s a political party that can claim the environment as part of its program, a progressive one that is, it has to be the Green Party. And joining me now are two gentlemen involved with the Green Party. Blair Bobier is founder of the Oregon Greens, and Dan Coleman is founder of the North Carolina Greens. Hello, gentlemen.
CURWOOD: Now what about the millions – I think it was almost three million voters – who voted for Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate last time. Now that he’s withdrawn from the Green Party candidacy for this election, is this good news or bad news for the Green Party? Let me start with you, Blair.
BOBIER: Well I think it’s great that Ralph Nader ran as our presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000. The party grew exponentially. I also think it’s a great thing that Ralph is standing aside this time. We are a grass-roots organization, and we’re much deeper and wider than any one candidate, so it’s time for the Green Party to grow up and field a candidate of our own.
CURWOOD: But given the American electoral system right now, which is winner take all, any minority party tends to take votes away from folks who are closest to it politically.
COLEMAN: That’s one of the problems the Green Party certainly faces, is that that’s the perception. Although you could argue just as well that it’s the major party taking votes away from the minor party. Because many millions of people who agree more with the Green Party than, say, with the Democrats, will vote for the Democratic candidate because of the perception that that’s a winnable vote.
I disagree with Blair about whether the Greens should have a presidential candidate this year. This year people on the left are so concerned about defeating George Bush, that, although Greens would have trouble rallying around most likely Democratic candidates, it’s important for us to get out of the way of people who are our allies and supporters focusing on that mission of defeating George Bush this year.
CURWOOD: What about the issue, though, that in an American electoral system, where it is winner take all, that by nature, political parties are going to compete for the same base, and in such a process, they’re more likely to elect people who are much further away from them ideologically?
BOBIER: Well, I think one of the reasons to run is to talk about the shortcomings and failures of an ancient and inefficient electoral system. We need to have reforms, like instant run-off voting, so that people can vote for who they want without the fear that they’ll elect someone they don’t want.
There’s also the greatest chunk of voters, or voter potential in this country, are non-voters. So I don’t think it’s necessarily true that there’s a finite pie of voters. We have to reach people who are non-voters, people who aren’t registered, people who are independents. So there’s the entire electorate up for grabs. I don’t see it as something that’s static.
CURWOOD: I want to thank you both for taking this time with me today. Blair Bobier, founder of the Oregon Greens, thank you so much.
BOBIER: Thank you Steve.
CURWOOD: And Dan Coleman, founder of the North Carolina Greens, thanks to you as well.
COLEMAN: Thanks, Steve.