by Alexander Cockburn
Interior Secretary, Gail Norton, has been working the weekend TV talk shows pledging that at the end of Bush's first term the air and water of this country will be cleaner and safer than ever. She can't muster any evidence for this comfortable prediction, but Norton certainly does understand one thing: If you're going to rape the environment and get away with it, do it with a demure demeanor. Don't snarl, act "ideological," and thus terrify every urban American promising themselves a trip to Yellowstone one day into fearing that there'll be a McDonald's sitting next to Old Faithful when they finally haul themselves there in their golden years.
But though Norton was comfortingly suave, it may all be too late. In politics, first impressions can be the enduring ones, and in the minds of many Americans, the Bush administration is the errand boy of oil and coal companies, indifferent to arsenic contamination of water, eager to OK drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and heedless of fears about global warming. A Washington Post poll this week shows respectable numbers for Bush, except in the area of the environment, where both Republicans and Democrats, by substantial majorities, deem him to be a gofer for the corporations.
There are plenty of Republicans in Congress who remember the debacle of the mid-term elections of 1996, when the Democrats were able to paint Gingrich as an environmental Attila, and the matching debacle of 1998 where the same charges were successfully leveled which finished Gingrich off. Already, Republican senators Lincoln Chafee, Olympia Snowe, James Jeffords and Susan Collins have chided some of the moves as misguided and dangerous for the future political health of the party. It took nearly four years to hear similar warnings about Clinton from Democrats.
In the waning hours of the Clinton era, the Democrats laid a series of simple traps, and the Bush crowd is falling into them. Take the rules about arsenic in drinking water in western states. After a 1994 lawsuit against the EPA, the Clinton administration did nothing for six years. Finally, after it was clear Al Gore was headed for a part-time teaching job at the Columbia School of Journalism, the government put through an anti-arsenic regulation through as a presidential directive. The same thing happened with other last-minute rules and edicts. Along comes Bush, who nullifies the arsenic rule, just as the Democrats hoped he would. Now they can paint him as the poisoner of children, even though they ignored the same poisoning for six years.
For Republicans, the environment is a deadly issue, and every eastern Republican representative sitting on a slender majority knows it well. For Democrats it's almost their only winner, aside from choice. It doesn't matter whether the issue is arsenic or Bush's refusal to be stampeded about the supposed role of CO2 emissions in climate change. It doesn't matter whether the Clinton-issued last-minute directives on logging in roadless areas of national forests are a fraud or whether Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt approved test-drilling for oil in the old Navy Reserve in Alaska and supervised regulatory undermining of the Endangered Species Act. No matter how sweetly Norton may talk, the Republicans are going to be painted as nature rapers in the mid-term elections in 2002, and it will cost them dearly.
Polls show that even Republicans oppose drilling in ANWR and loosening drinking water standards and that more than 50 percent support strengthening laws that have long been bugaboos of the industrial right-wing, such as the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act. The evidence for this can be seen in the growth of a new environmental group that is already putting George Bush's feet to the fire: Republicans for Environmental Protection.
These are really Republicans and also hard-core environmentalists. And they are gaining more clout inside the party. Martha Marks, president of the group, claims a strong spike upward in membership after the Norton nomination, with as many as 1,000 signing up in the last two months. Beware, Mr. President. You're on a bigger stage than the oil patch now.
April 28, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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