Green-eyed monster

Environmentalists try to make Gore jealous by flirting with Bradley, but the Gore campaign is convinced they'll remain faithful.

Published January 21, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Al Gore is hardly known as a risk taker, but he definitely went out on a limb with his 1991 book "Earth in the Balance." His call to arms compared the degradation of the environment to Kristallnacht. And the erstwhile senator wasn't conservative in his remedies for saving the natural world: He called for eliminating the internal-combustion engine within the next 25 years and declared that "[w]e must make the environment the central organizing principle for civilization." The tough rhetoric won kudos from environmentalists, and they rallied to the Clinton-Gore ticket in 1992.

As a presidential candidate, however, Gore has displayed little of the fervor found in "Earth." The vice president has pounded issues like health care and education on the hustings; the environment, in contrast, has received short shrift. Instead of warning about the perils of global warming, the vice president's green pronouncements have essentially focused on "livability" issues like urban sprawl. The idea is to reach out to suburban swing voters who are sick of brutal traffic congestion and the eyesore of strip malls.

Implicit in Gore's strategy is that he doesn't have to talk about environmental issues to be the environmental candidate. In fact, there is a potential downside to highlighting a green agenda. As Arlie Shardt, head of the nonprofit Environmental Media Services and a former Gore press secretary, puts it, "[Gore's advisors] don't want him to be tagged as a one-issue politician." Memories of Gore's 1988 presidential run surely loom large over the 2000 campaign's strategy. In that race, the Tennessee senator beat the drum on environmental issues -- and reaped little political payoff. Columnist George Will sneered at Gore's "consuming interest in issues that are, in the eyes of the electorate, not even peripheral." And after Gore gave an address on ozone depletion in a presidential primary debate, Jesse Jackson turned to the audience and observed, "Sen. Gore has just explained to us why he should be our national chemist." Why go green and risk that kind of ridicule?

But while environmentalists don't oppose putting lighter, yuppie-centric issues like growth management on the campaign agenda, they don't appreciate the campaign's instinct to address green issues through the back door. Ultimately, they feel taken for granted. "We need a stronger articulation of the top line goal," says Deb Callahan of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV). "Gore is defined by global warming and he wrote an impressive book on it. He should step forward and be a strong public proponent."

So activists are trying their best to keep the vice president's feet to the fire. Bill Bradley's presence in the primaries puts the green lobby in an enviable position, because he has solid environmental bona fides, too. The League of Conservation Voters gave the former New Jersey legislator an 84 percent approval rating on his voting on environmental issues while in the Senate, compared to 64 percent for Gore. (If you factor in Gore's absences during 1988 and 1992, however, the margin narrows considerably.)

Others simply refuse to pick a favorite. "I compare Gore and Bradley to Joe Montana and John Elway," says Dan Weiss of the Sierra Club. "You'd want either on your team."

Friends of the Earth (FOE) went a step further -- they endorsed Bradley over Gore this fall. "Bradley had the better legislative record," explains FOE president Brett Blackwelder. "We were also disillusioned with Gore's failure as the environmental spokesperson of this administration." Most green groups say FOE's endorsement was premature, but also they see the political benefits in playing hard to get. "What the Friends of the Earth endorsement said is, 'You cannot take this constituency for granted,'" says Deb Callahan of the LCV. "Environmentalists are notorious for not accepting half a loaf."

You could argue that the administration's green policy initiatives amount to more than half a loaf. Gore, for example, risked political capital when he flew to Kyoto over the howls of his political advisors to save the 1997 global climate change negotiations. The administration also helped pass the California Desert Protection Act, which covers more public land than any other conservation law.

In the wake of Friends of the Earth's diss of the vice president, the White House and the vice president have hewed to an even greener agenda. The Forest Service proposed prohibiting road building in 40 million acres of the nation's forests, effectively saving trees from becoming paper pulp. The Environmental Protection Agency issued rules that will require cleaner gasoline and mandate that sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) meet the same emissions standards as cars. Clinton designated three new national monuments, protecting millions of acres of land.

And Gore declared he would ban any new offshore drilling for oil and gas along the California and Florida coasts. FOE's president Blackwelder says that pressuring Gore was a big factor behind the Bradley endorsement. "We did this at a point when it could make a difference," he said. "It helped leverage several important announcements."

That claim makes the administration apoplectic. The new initiatives are part of the effort to burnish Clinton's legacy, they say, and have been in the works for a long time. "To suggest that [the two White House] actions were in some way in response to Friends of the Earth's endorsement is laughable, if not ludicrous," says a White House official. "They are the culmination of processes that have been under way for a long time. And they are in keeping with the substance and spirit of this administration's policies." Still, some green activists speculate that the timing of the initiatives was more than a coincidence.

"I think [Friends of the Earth's endorsement] has made a difference," says Arlie Shardt. The Gore campaign is probably itching to lock up the support of environmentalists. The vice president has been identified with the movement for years, and their distance could prove an embarrassment for him. But as long as Bradley is in the race, an endorsement is unlikely to come anytime soon. By holding back, they are in a position to pressure Gore to step up his advocacy of green issues and extract more concessions from his campaign and possibly the administration.

It's a smart strategy, because left to its own devices, the Gore campaign would probably continue to soft-peddle the vice president's signature issue. And that could ultimately be a detriment not only for green politics, but Gore's own presidential bid. As Callahan points out, the environment is an important issue for 18-to-25-year-olds and suburban women. "If you need to reach out and get swing votes," she says, "this is an issue that can motivate."

And with the economy booming, now is as good a time as ever to tackle the vexing issues of climate change and pollution. Gore wrote self-critically in "Earth in the Balance" that he was "impatient with my tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously." Now is his chance to translate those printed words into action, and lead on the issue he's tried to claim as his own.

By Alexandra Starr

Alexandra Starr is a freelance writer based in Washington.

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