Ballot Box

Bush’s Eco-Challenge

Two issues pose a special risk to Republicans these days: abortion and the environment. What makes these areas especially hazardous for the GOP is not simply that the party’s familiar positions are out of step with those of a majority of citizens. It’s that a lot of swing voters care about them enough for them to be a significant factor in voting decisions. It’s also that abortion and the environment are issues where liberal interest groups have a big advantage in terms of organization, mobilization, and funding. (On abortion it’s a potential advantage, one that would make itself felt if the basic legal status of abortion were ever seriously threatened.)

It’s instructive to contrast the ways in which President Bush has handled the two issues. On abortion, he has behaved in a predictable, politically intelligible way. That is to say, after some initial posturing to the right, he has made fairly clear that he isn’t going to squander any political capital promoting his unpopular position in favor of a constitutional amendment making abortion illegal. Bush has reinstated Ronald Reagan’s “Mexico City” policy, which bans federal support for groups that provide abortions abroad. But at home, Bush has deferred on all the tricky subsidiary issues like RU-486 and fetal stem-cell research. And on the big questions of abortion’s legal status, he shows every sign of bowing to political reality. Instead of trying to change the law, he’ll try to “change hearts.” That’s because according to the most recent Gallup poll on the topic, Americans oppose Bush’s position by a margin of more than 2 to 1. Bush won’t be challenging this consensus with any kind of serious effort because he knows that overturning Roe would be a political Waterloo for the GOP.

On environmental issues, however, Bush has been acting lately in a way that seems the opposite of politically astute. He has taken a strong stance in favor of gas drilling (“exploration” in Bushspeak) in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Last month, he knee-capped EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman when he reversed his campaign pledge to combat global warming by lowering carbon dioxide emission standards for power plants. Then, most recently, he blocked a Clinton administration executive order that would have set lower levels of arsenic in drinking water.

With the exception of drilling in Alaska, an issue that even the Republican Congress is afraid to back Bush on, it can be argued that Bush’s substantive positions on these issues are not especially fanatical. In the case of both CO2 emissions and arsenic levels, Bush isn’t repealing existing standards or regulations. He’s simply resisting proposals to tighten them. In a context of rising standards, however, forestalling additional progress essentially means going backward. Democrats are already salivating at the prospect of using arsenic levels as an issue in 2002. Politically, it’s a pretty obvious call. Bush would have been far more sensible to let the Clinton regs stand.

When a politician takes a position that is apparently self-destructive in the way that Bush’s arsenic-friendly stance is, it can indicate one of three things. The first thing to look for is the possibility that the person is so isolated that he doesn’t recognize political reality. A second possibility is that the politician is making a more complex political judgment than most people assume. For example, a straightforward reading of national poll numbers suggests that gun control should be an issue helpful to Democrats. But in 2000 it wasn’t because the NRA is stronger than its counterparts on the other side, because the issue is important to blue-collar men, and because those blue-collar men are crucial in several swing states in the South and Midwest. A third and final possibility is that a politician’s unpopular decision is motivated by conscience. He may be willing to accept a potential risk or damage in order to do what he believes in.

In the case of Bush and the environment, we’re dealing with a combination of these factors. The right-wing echo chamber effect leads administration officials to believe that there’s a bona fide national constituency for things like arsenic in tap water, negligence on global warming, and derricks in Alaskan wilderness. I don’t think that Bush’s guru Karl Rove is so blinded by ideology that he thought these would be popular stands. But it’s likely that everyone Rove speaks to on a daily basis thinks they were the right ones to take.

The better explanation, however, is that Bush is acting from conscience and thinks he can frame the issues in a politically advantageous way. Bush’s political case is that voters back environmental protection until they’re faced with its real costs. He calculates that the public prefers a pristine home for caribou in the abstract, but that most people aren’t willing to pay more for gasoline to preserve it. The same goes for CO2 emissions and arsenic water. People may be worried about global warming and environmental toxins. But Bush thinks they’re more worried about their utility bills and the general health of the economy. His rationalizations may also have something to do with appeasing conservative zealots within his party.

But–and this is the important point–Bush wouldn’t be straining so hard to come up with plausible political justifications if he weren’t acting on the basis of conviction. The widespread cynical assumption is that Bush’s pro-industry measures are rewards for corporate contributors. But a look at Bush’s biography and Texas record underscores a much stronger case that for him, this is a rare matter of fundamental belief. Bush’s first career was exploring for oil. As governor of Texas, he clearly and consistently took the position that the rights of businessmen trumped a variety of other public goods, such as cleaner air and water. You can say what you want about this view. But you can’t say that Bush doesn’t sincerely hold it.

It seems likely that Bush’s principles have led him into an important political miscalculation. Texas is America, but America is not Texas. A moderate, pro-environmental consensus has become a powerful force in many states that Bush aspires to win in 2004, including Florida, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. On the one hand, I suppose it’s admirable that Bush is willing to take a big political risk for the sake of his beliefs, even if his beliefs are dead wrong. (Like Clinton, he doesn’t govern merely according to the polls.) On the other hand, government by polls isn’t always such a bad thing. A bit of political cowardice can be a powerful antidote to ideological extremism.