Where's Ralph?

With Nader and Gore missing in action, environmentalists are desperately gearing up to stop Bush's pro-business juggernaut.

By Anthony York
Published April 17, 2001 10:17PM (EDT)

In fewer than 100 days in office, President Bush has shocked even his critics with the fast pace of his efforts to roll back environmental protection policies. The nomination of industry advocate Gale Norton as interior secretary; proposals to reduce restrictions on arsenic in drinking water and rescind President Clinton's executive order protecting millions of acres of national forests; his shocking decision to break his own campaign promise to cut carbon dioxide emissions -- each decision has left environmentalists sputtering for an effective political response.

On Tuesday, the counterattack begins. A coalition of the nation's leading environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, League of Conservation Voters, Defenders of Wildlife, Union of Concerned Scientists, National Environmental Trust, Natural Resources Defense Council and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, will announce a major national advertising blitz to counter the Bush agenda for the environment.

"The ads will definitely send the message that we can't turn back the clock on 30 years of environmental action, and alert the public to these kinds of things that are going on," says Gene Karpinski, executive director of the U.S. PIRG.

For months, a barrage of Bush anti-environment appointments and policy decisions has gone mostly unanswered, causing even supporters to ask whether the environmental movement is up to the challenge of combating the boldest assault on its principles in at least a generation. Clearly the movement lacks a strong, national leader to help it chart a bold, attention-getting course.

The Democrat most likely to get big media attention for bashing Bush, former Vice President (and "Earth in the Balance" author) Al Gore, is apparently too busy licking his wounds and trying to mend political fences to go on the attack. Meanwhile, Ralph Nader, standard-bearer of the Green Party -- didn't they have something to do with environmentalism? -- is more focused on party building, bashing Democrats and railing against ATM fees.

Against the backdrop of those politicians' virtual silence in the face of the Bush juggernaut, a loose affiliation of environmental groups -- from the ragtag and radical to the slick and mainstream -- is left to chart its own course. With its history of infighting, the movement is at a disadvantage, lacking either a quickly mobilized grass-roots constituency or a well-oiled lobbying machine. Thus it has been slower out of the gate than other Democratic-leaning interest blocs.

Labor, for instance, rallied quickly to help kill the nomination of Linda Chavez as labor secretary, and ran an advertising campaign against the Bush tax cut in key states. Women's groups have gone on the offensive against restrictions on abortion, like Bush's early move to restrict funding to international groups that educate women on their abortion choices. Planned Parenthood organized a wildly successful fundraising drive, getting people to pledge support to the organization in Bush's name. On Sunday, the National Organization for Women will sponsor an Emergency Action for Women' Lives -- a march in Washington that will highlight two weeks of lobbying for abortion rights.

So far, there has been no environmental equivalent. "I think many of us were stunned. For [Bush] to be this bad, this fast, this visibly was shocking, and maybe some of us weren't ready," says John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA.

But movement leaders insist they're ready now. "An extraordinary attack calls for an extraordinary defense," says Natural Resources Defense Council spokesman Alan Metrick. "And we have begun an extraordinary defense."

"Begun" is the operative word. Whether the movement can mount a defense worthy of its adversary in the White House will become clear in the months to come.

The movement's disarray in the face of the Bush assault shouldn't be surprising. There have always been major tensions and fissures in environmental politics between elites and the grass roots, between advocates of electoral politics and supporters of direct action. Within the electoral politics camp, there are still more splits -- among those with ties to Democrats, those who've tried to stay bipartisan and support the GOP's dwindling green caucus and, lately, Green Party supporters.

And the most recent election only exacerbated those tensions, as Gore supporters fought with Nader backers over the best way to protect the environment. The Nader forces who argued there wasn't enough difference between Bush and Gore to merit supporting the Democrat are being proven wrong daily -- though some still insist that Bush's egregious positions will ultimately help the environmental movement.

There is continuing evidence of troublesome rifts caused by Nader's presidential quest, and his post-election behavior hasn't helped to heal them. "The 'Where's Nader' question is one I've been asking for a while," says League of Conservation Voters spokeswoman Lisa Wade. "We asked that after the Norton nomination. Here's a guy who spent a career advocating for the public interest and supposedly for the environment. Yet now when it's down to brass tacks, when the nation could really use someone out there who is a vocal opponent of the misguided environmental policies of this administration, he's nowhere to be found. As long as Ralph Nader was in the spotlight, he was willing to continue the issue march. The minute the spotlight dimmed, he's just not as concerned or committed to being out there."

Nader has been somewhat more visible than Gore -- making the rounds of cable talk shows -- but not as an environmentalist. Despite the name of the political party that has twice nominated him for president, Nader has always been more a consumer advocate than a Green.

Even now, Nader is more concerned with consumer protection issues than the environment -- with the added priority, now that he's a party leader, to bash Democrats whenever he gets the chance. Thus one of his first crusades was against a congressional vote to roll back ergonomic safety standards Clinton had imposed -- which allowed him to smack Democrats who supported the rollback. His main environmental protection plank seems to be raising fuel efficiency standards on new cars. Recently on Fox News, Nader was scheduled on a show dedicated to discussing Bush's environmental moves. But Nader continued his mantra that there is essentially no difference between Democrats and Republicans.

"There are some differences, obviously. But the similarities in entrenching corporate power over this city of ours and this democracy and elections are far greater than any dwindling real differences between the two parties," Nader said. "The real problem in this city, in our country, in national government, is too much corporate power, too little people power."

It's not only Democrats and environmentalists who have questioned Nader's post-election priorities. On CNN's "Spin Room," the Weekly Standard's Tucker Carlson asked Nader about his crusade against ATM fees. "This strikes me as a very, very micro issue. Does it seem that you've gone from talking about the future of the nation to $1.55?" Carlson asked.

At least Nader's taken a few political stands. Gore, meanwhile, has been busy discussing "meta-narratives" with his students at Columbia Journalism School. The silence of the politician Bush's father derided as "Ozone Man" continues, despite an uptick in stories calling on the former Democratic standard-bearer to come forward and speak his mind. In an April 12 column in New York Newsday, Walter Williams writes, "In the role of the cowardly lion, the former vice president takes the riskiest of political roads for himself and his party. With Bill Clinton gone-to-ground for other reasons, the Democrats desperately need a highly visible, bold leader to do battle with the Bush forces over the fundamental question of fairness. The high ground of statesmanship beckons to Gore."

And in a New York Times Op-Ed, George Packer criticized Gore for his silence on the Bush administration's decision to abandon the Kyoto accords. "When President Bush broke his campaign promise to cap carbon dioxide emissions and then shrugged off the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, Al Gore, the candidate who won the popular vote by half a million, was apparently too busy mending fences in Tennessee to say one word about an issue that once inspired him to write an entire book," Packer writes.

"I don't think you can just stop being a leader because you don't know how to position yourself in the aftermath of a stolen election," Packer tells Salon. "If he were a real leader, he would be leading. Instead, everything seems to be about him and how he's going to reestablish his position in the aftermath of Florida instead of taking a principled stand on an issue that's important to him."

But former Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway expects his former boss to break his self-imposed silence soon. "I'm sure he's appalled by what Bush is doing on the environment," Hattaway says of Gore. "There's probably a downside to him taking a high-profile role criticizing the administration. Gore would be attacked for sour grapes if he were too critical at this stage. I predict that we will hear from him at some point, but I don't think it makes sense to come out and comment on every move the administration makes."

With an uncoordinated and feeble attack coming from Democrats and Greens, the environmental movement is increasingly being forced to take the lead in the fight against the Bush administration. But core questions over what role electoral politics should play in that fight continue to nag as Bush meticulously disassembles many of the movement's key recent victories. This has some on the left wondering out loud if the movement is ready for its challenges.

"The American environmental movement lacks vision and strong leadership," writes Mark Dowie in his new book, "American Foundations." "How else could such a well-established, well-financed movement supported by so many millions of voters have become so ineffectual?"

Dowie has long argued that large environmental groups such as the Sierra Cub, NRDC, Wilderness Society and National Audubon Society have become too dependent on corporate and foundation funding, undermining the radicalism -- and reach -- of the movement.

"Not surprisingly, groups that rely more heavily on foundation support tend to be more centrist, more inclined to follow the 'soft path' of environmental reform," Dowie writes. Overly dependent on big donor money, the largest environmental groups "are careful not to do anything that might diminish the benefactor's involvement. In a social movement in which the antagonist is so often private enterprise, that sensitivity continues to be a limiting edict -- one which most of the aforementioned groups are handsomely rewarded for obeying."

While radicals like Dowie would like to see more of a focus on grass-roots organization, other groups are trying to flex their political muscle the old-fashioned way -- by spending money. But if the left is marginalized for being too radical, the centrist environmental groups that play the political game are often overlooked because they cannot pony up the kind of major political dollars other interest groups can.

Metrick says the NRDC has already spent $500,000 on a television ad that ran in 21 cable markets across the country -- including New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Miami -- targeting Bush's environmental record. The ad was the first one ever purchased by the NRDC. Metrick concedes the buy may not have been a major event in the world of electoral politics, but it was a significant one for his organization.

"I know $500,000 doesn't sound like a whole lot of money, but for us it was an extraordinary amount of money." Metrick says the NRDC is currently working on a second television spot that "really reminds viewers that this is a man who is in the pocket of the oil and coal lobbies."

The coalition announcing the ad buy on Tuesday won't specify just how much it's spending. Karpinski says the ad will run across the country, "from Lansing, Mich., to Las Vegas, Nev.," on non-network stations. "The buy will be significant enough that people should be able to see it. But it will be a relatively small amount of money compared to what the industries can spend against us."

But how much respect can the movement expect from the Democratic Party? Even though the environment is fast emerging as an issue for Democrats to use against Bush, Hattaway says environmental groups have a long way to go in asserting their power within the Democratic Party.

"They rank high but they're not to the level of the AFL-CIO," he says. "It's a different constituency. Environmentally active people who vote and get motivated around environmental issues tend to be more upscale. They have a higher education and income level than your typical union member."

But just because environmentalists may be wealthy on the whole doesn't mean they're necessarily big political donors. According to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics, environmental groups ranked 76 out of 80 industries that give to campaigns. There are no signs that environmental giving is picking up: During the last election cycle, environmental groups gave $1.4 million. That was down from $1.6 million in 1992 and $1.7 million in 1994, but up from $1.2 million in 1996.

Increasingly, environmental groups are purchasing so-called issue ads, which are unregulated and not monitored by the Federal Election Commission or by the Center for Responsive Politics. So the real dollar figure is significantly higher than the numbers listed above, but still nowhere near what other major Democratic givers contribute. Labor unions, for example, gave more than $83 million during the last cycle, according to CRP numbers. Then again, unions have the Clinton-era policies of NAFTA, GATT and most-favored-nation trading status for China -- all policies they opposed -- to show for their efforts.

Wade points to last fall's defeat of Washington state Republican Sen. Slade Gorton as a sign of the maturation of environmental politics. The League of Conservation Voters spent more than $700,000 on television spots and direct mail in the effort to defeat Gorton. As a result, the environment emerged as a top issue in voters' minds, according to exit polls conducted by the LCV. "We found his ties to the big polluter special interests, and PAC money he'd taken, became the No. 1 reason to vote against him."

Many environmental activists say 1994 was a turning point for the movement. After Republicans captured Congress, individual groups began reassessing their own tactics internally, and the major environmental groups began a more coordinated attack. "Through '94, we operated like a PAC writing checks to candidates," Wade says. "After '94, we changed our strategy. We found the environment was an incredibly powerful electoral issue, and we started doing our own TV, mail and [get out the vote] push."

Metrick says '94 was a pivotal moment for his group as well. "It was really when the Gingrich Congress announced they would roll back environmental protections. That was the beginning of a formation of a formal level of cooperation among the groups to fight back. Those alliances are in place today."

Liz Hitchcock, communications director for U.S. PIRG, says one of her favorite photos on the wall in her office is a symbol of the environmental alliance that began to coalesce when the Republicans captured Congress.

"In 1995, we launched with a number of other groups a drive to collect signatures on an environmental bill of rights," she says. "One of my favorite pictures is one of the bags of petitions on the steps on the Capitol. There were 1.2 million signatures in those bags." Hitchcock jokes that the petition was almost never even written because the activists in the room "had to fight over every last comma and semicolon on that petition. So that photo was a real testament to the new cooperation" among the different factions within the movement.

Former Gore spokesman Hattaway expects the movement to get more attention from Democrats in the years to come, because hammering Bush on the environment is a convenient way to illustrate a larger point: that he's more concerned with the interests of big business than with the average citizen.

"The environment could be Bush's Achilles' heel," Hattaway says. "Bush's policies show that he is on the side of big business and polluting interests rather than local communities and regular families. It's one of the best issues we Democrats have. There are so many specific things, but it also focuses on concerns people had about Bush in the first place."

There's evidence Democrats think they have a winning issue in Bush's environmental policy. Wade points out that key presidential contenders have recently gone out of their way to begin staking out positions on environmental issues -- from Sen. John Kerry's threat of a filibuster to stop a Bush bill that would weaken the Endangered Species Act to Sen. Joe Lieberman's criticisms of Bush's decision to allow logging on 58 million acres of national forest land set aside by Clinton.

"I think it's just starting," she says. Last year "was certainly a good year for the environment as a mainstream issue. Had it been discussed more in the presidential campaign, it could have been an even better year. But we think 2002 is going to be huge. It's going to be one of the key defining issues. Bush is creating a record that will be incredibly hard to defend, and very easy to attack."

Like the unions, environmentalists say they will be keeping the heat on moderate Republicans, particularly those in the Northeast where environmental protection has a strong constituency even among Republicans. "We'll be helping to make sure that whatever they do they're held accountable for in 2002 and 2004," Wade said.

And there are some signs of party fissure over the environment. Moderates such as Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island and Jim Jeffords of Vermont, and even otherwise conservative pols like Bob Smith of New Hampshire, have all been critical of some of Bush's environmental moves since he took office. When Bush announced he was reneging on his promise to reduce CO2 emissions, for example, Jeffords said he would continue with his bill to reduce emissions from power plants. "Like many in the nation, I am concerned about our current energy situation," Jeffords said. "But an energy crisis is not a ticket to pollute."

"Look at the position he's putting moderate Republicans in," Wade said of Bush. "If they're tarred with his environmental record, it's going to put them in a real tough spot. They've got the option of supporting constituents or supporting their president, who's working against those things their constituents care about. One helps them in 2002; the other might make it a little less politically difficult inside Washington right now."

Yet many Republicans believe Bush can afford to essentially ignore environmentalists. A recent Wall Street Journal column by Gerald Seib suggested the president may be able to afford a few blemishes on his environmental record and still put together an Electoral College majority in 2004 -- in fact, Seib argues, it could solidify Bush's electoral base. "Bush won by taking some states that don't always go Republican: West Virginia, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky," Seib writes. "These aren't exactly hotbeds of environmentalism. In fact, they tend to be places where blue-collar workers worry, particularly in times of economic stress, that environmental extremists might sacrifice their jobs in coal mines or smokestack industries in pursuit of their own goals."

Either way, environmentalists would probably be mistaken to wait for a partisan savior. "To expect party leaders to galvanize opposition instead of responding to it misunderstands the nature of what the parties are today," says Packer. "They're fundraising machines with the ghosts of certain principles they used to hold, but just barely. Parties don't speak to the public; they don't have a connection to the base."

And there are still some in the movement who argue that Bush's relative radicalism will in the long run be good for environmentalism. "Take global warming," says Greenpeace's Passacantando. "In some ways, what Gore was doing was gumming it to death. You're almost better off with Bush unifying the public and the environmentalists in saying, 'Look how bad this threat is.' Gore could have kept it bumbling along and given us a hollow agreement. There would have been no real reductions of CO2 and we wouldn't have known better. We environmentalists would have been telling you, but you wouldn't believe us."

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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