Environmental activists wanted two things to happen on Election Day — they wanted President Bush to lose and their cause to be a big reason why. They got neither, and that may bode well for the future of environmental policy reform.
Surveys taken before the elections showed that the environment was far down on the list of voters’ concerns. For example, a Gallup poll taken earlier in 2004 ranked it 11th in importance among 12 issues. The election-day results bore this out, as the environment was barely on the radar compared to security, the economy, health care, and other issues. Overall, it is safe to say that environmental issues played no role in the outcome, and that probably would have been the case even if Bush had narrowly lost.
This was not for lack of trying. The big green groups, most of whom maintain only a pretense of nonpartisanship, began their attacks as soon as Bush took office and never let up during the ensuing four years. When the President wasn’t poisoning the children with arsenic in drinking water or mercury in fish, he was handing over national forests to loggers or walking away from the international consensus to fight global warming. The elite media gave these and other factually questionable allegations ample publicity and minimal scrutiny.
The League of Conservation Voters handed Bush a grade of F on the environment, and at a press conference expressed regret that there was no lower grade to give. Natural Resources Defense Council activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. called Bush “America’s worst environmental president,” and was far from alone in doing so. The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, CBS, NBC, and ABC gleefully ran with nearly every hit piece the green groups fed them. And Democratic politicians tried to make the most of these attacks.
But on Election Day, “America’s worst environmental president” lost very few votes because of the environment. The eco-vilification could not have been any more intense, yet politically it amounted to nothing.
It wasn’t, as green activists now assert, that voters were simply distracted by other issues — the electorate also demonstrated skepticism towards the anti-Bush environmental hyperbole.
There are lessons for both parties. The Democrats were proven wrong in thinking that they could beat up Bush and the Republicans with a green stick. Indeed, many congressional Democrats even grandstanded against Bush’s least controversial environmental reforms, such as the wildfire-reducing Healthy Forests Restoration Act. They thought they would score political points, but it clearly did not happen.
Perhaps Democrats will finally realize that they don’t gain from knee-jerk opposition to Republicans on environmental matters.
Republicans have lessons to learn as well. Despite the howls from the environmental left and the media, the real story of the Bush environmental record thus far is one of timidity and fear of criticism. With only a few exceptions, the administration has declined to take bold action to fix the many outdated, costly, and ineffective federal environmental measures enacted over the past three decades. Such efforts would have sparked opposition from the environmental old-guard, who see any fundamental change as change for the worse, even in programs with a poor track record.
Beyond struggling in vain to avoid criticism, Bush also tried to court environmentalists with occasional “me too” measures no different than ones an Al Gore administration would have enacted, such as the tough new emissions controls on diesel equipment. Of course, the Republicans never came anywhere close to placating the greens, and the election results show that they need not have bothered to try.
Looking ahead, the environmental activists will certainly continue their over-the-top attacks, but President Bush and the Republican-led Congress have little reason to be concerned. At the very least, they can safely engage in obstructionism and stop environmental policy from getting worse. In particular, they should continue resisting calls to impose new energy-use restrictions designed to combat the putative threat of global warming. The costs of any serious effort to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the chief anthropogenic greenhouse gas and ubiquitous by-product of fossil fuel use, would easily dwarf those of any other environmental measure to date. That is true of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the multilateral treaty dealing with global warming, as well as more recent “Kyoto-lite” measures introduced in the Senate.
Better still, the administration and Congress could also engage in reforming existing policy. “The environmental regulatory system in the United States is broken and needs repair,” says Jonathan Adler, Associate Professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.
Virtually every major environmental statute and implementing agency could use an overhaul, and genuine policy innovations need to be introduced. This is true even for the environmental movement’s sacred cows. The Endangered Species Act does more harm than good, both for the species it is supposed to protect and for the people whose livelihoods it impacts. The Clean Air Act is filled with poorly designed provisions, including several costly gasoline requirements that have provided no measurable air quality benefits and may have actually made things worse. The Superfund program has been a loser for just about everyone except Superfund lawyers, costing a fortune while doing little to clean up industrial waste sites and nothing to protect the public health.
These and other environmental policies need more than a little tinkering around the edges. Granted, doing so will still take political courage, but not as much as previously thought. Perhaps the election results have finally removed the political barriers that have prevented Washington from doing so in the past.