Environment Shows True Nature Of Bush

21 October 2004

By Stentor Danielson

I was disappointed by the candidates' handling of the one question about the environment during the second presidential debate. President Bush responded with the absurd claim that he has been a "good steward of the land." Then John Kerry wasted half of his rebuttal rambling on about "labels," before flubbing what should have been a slam-dunk indictment of the current administration. But at least there was a question about the environment -- moderator Bob Schieffer didn't bother to raise the issue at all during the third debate last week.

It's tragic that the environment has received so little attention in this campaign. It's a significant issue in its own right -- for example, the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that 64,000 Americans die each year just from particulate air pollution, a number that dwarfs the 3000 who died on September 11 and the more than 1000 who have lost their lives in Iraq. Voters generally favor strong environmental protection, which may explain why Bush avoided the kind of anti-regulatory rhetoric that he has used in the context of health care. Indeed, a survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that 93% of Bush supporters want more labor and environmental standards in trade agreements and a majority favor signing the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

While environmental issues are important in their own right, they also have the potential to feed a larger storyline about the Bush administration. Bush's poor stewardship of the land is part and parcel of his dangerously corrupt and shortsighted governing style.

This campaign has been largely fought on the question of competence, rather than ideology. The Kerry campaign has shied away from the charges, popular among grass-roots Bush-bashers, that the President is a religious zealot and a neocon extremist. In this he is largely correct. While Bush is certainly too willing to let his too-conservative faith shape public policy and too eager to remake the world, he is hardly out of the Republican mainstream. Indeed, he has alienated some of his base through his lackluster commitment to the anti-gay agenda and the emptiness of his small government rhetoric.

What does motivate Bush is a deep-seated cronyism. The President prizes loyalty as the highest virtue, cracking down on members of his own administration that dissent from his views. It's a view cultivated by a lifetime of relying on social networks, rather than talent, to get ahead -- from using his father's connections to get a cushy stateside job during the Vietnam War to having his failing oil business bailed out by friends.

So it's no wonder that, having been handed the reins of power in Washington, Bush felt it appropriate to use them to reward and cultivate his relationships with his backers -- backers who, like himself, hailed from the elite classes and corporate boardrooms of the nation. Environmental issues have been a key avenue for this payback.

The cases of the no-bid contract to Haliburton for reconstruction in Iraq, and the windfalls to pharmaceutical companies from the Medicare prescription drug benefit are well-known. This sort of thing is commonplace in environmental law under Bush. The Healthy Forests Initiative prioritizes opening up forests to logging over focusing protection on urban-wildland interface communities. Changes in the New Source Review rule for power plants allow them to avoid costly, but environmentally significant, technology upgrades -- a move complemented by lackadaisical enforcement of violations. And the administration has allowed the corporate tax that once went to the Superfund program to lapse.

On the subject of energy, pie-in-the-sky promises about hydrogen cars disguise Bush's real agenda -- propping up the existing fossil fuel industry that nurtured him. Oil and gas companies have so much invested in the infrastructure and know-how of fossil fuels that they are threatened by the possibility of a transition to new forms of energy. So rather than a farsighted renewable energy program -- which would ultimately boost the economy and keep America at the forefront of science -- Bush has chosen to throw oil and gas companies any scraps he can find to keep them afloat. Drilling for a few barrels of oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was high-profile enough to be blocked by the Senate. But the Department of the Interior has spent the last three and a half years systematically handing out drilling rights on America's public lands.

Bush isn't ideologically committed to rolling back environmental regulation for the sake of rolling back regulation, the way consistent libertarians are. It's just that it happens that most of the favors corporations are looking for in the environmental field involve deregulation. Bush's one genuine environmental accomplishment highlights importance of favors over ideology. Despite throwing out a plethora of Clinton-era environmental proposals, Bush followed through on a plan to impose the first ever regulations on pollution from off-road diesel vehicles. This was a measure favored by the very companies that it affected, because they feared inaction at the federal level would lead to a confusing mish-mash of state and local rules.

Explaining Congress's inaction on environmental legislation, Republican Senator James Inhofe recently insinuated that environmentalism is just a front for pro-choice and anti-gun activists. But if he's searching for ulterior motives, he should take a look at his own commander-in-chief. Bush has chosen to be a good steward of his friends' bottom lines, rather than a good steward of the land.

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