Why They Don't Campaign About the Environment

Oct. 27 2000 8:30 PM

Why They Don't Campaign About the Environment

Though George W. Bush and Al Gore probably have different views about environmental policy, they don't spend a lot of time arguing about it. This is odd. If the great majority of voters want to protect the environment and the two candidates approach it differently, why not argue about it?

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The answer, I think, is that it is hard (but as I shall suggest, not impossible) to make a campaign issue out of a matter when voters tend to be in agreement. No candidate is going to say that he favors dirty air and polluted water, wants to see more dolphins killed, or hopes to build a Wal-Mart in the middle of Yosemite. The environment is what political scientists call a valence issue—that is, a question where voters pick candidates on the basis of which one most fully exemplifies, by slogans and experience, the sentiment that most voters have.

Gore has spent much of his life defending the environment; surely he would push the issue hard. But there is one problem here. The more he pushes in a debate, the more Bush will respond by saying that though he, too, favors the environment, he does not share the views Gore has set forth in his book, Earth in the Balance. Some examples:

Page 325: "We now know that [the] cumulative impact [of automobiles] on the global environment is posing a mortal threat to the security of every nation that is more deadly than that of any military enemy we are ever again likely to confront." Does he mean that the preferred mode of transportation of the great majority of people is a bigger danger than being atomized by some rogue nation?

Page xvii: Gore will "submit the Kyoto agreement to the Senate for ratification. I will stay and fight on this issue until we finally overcome the special-interest opposition." The U.S. Senate has already voted, 95 to zero, that it will not ratify the Kyoto agreement because it curbs carbon pollution in the United States but imposes no limits on such countries as China and India. Gore has no support even in his own party for a treaty that will help other nations become the chief atmospheric polluters.

Gore could, of course, say that his intemperate remarks are more than offset by Bush's environmental inactivity. And in political ads, though less so in the presidential debates, he has certainly criticized Bush's environmental record. It is quite possible that Bush has not given the environment as much attention as education, delinquency, and tort reform and that he, as governor, ought to have done more. But Gore's charges that Houston has passed Los Angeles to become the "smog capital of the United States" and that Texas has become "last among all states in air quality" are not true.

In a recent article in the Weekly Standard, Christopher DeMuth (who once headed the office of regulatory review in the Office of Management and Budget) and Steven Hayward take apart the Gore arguments using data from the Environmental Protection Agency that is headed by a former Gore aide, Carol Browner.

The "Dirty Houston" claim is false. Houston is in much better shape than Los Angeles. Houston has fewer airborne particulates and lower levels of three of the four Clean Air Act pollutants (nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and lead) than Los Angeles has, and Houston exceeds the EPA standard for only one (ozone). According to the EPA, Houston has better air quality than 10 other metropolitan areas.

The "Dirty Texas" claim is also false. Gore says that Texas is "No. 1 in industrial air pollution." But the EPA data do not support this claim. The EPA publishes, as DeMuth and Hayward note, a Toxics Release Inventory. That report measures how much of certain chemicals a state releases, but it lumps together those that are released into the environment (and thus become pollutants) and those that are recycled or disposed of by proper hazard-waste disposal systems (and thus are not pollutants). The TRI report does show, as you would expect in a state with a heavy investment in oil refining and chemical production, that Texas does release a lot of gunk. But much of what it releases is recycled or dealt with by EPA-approved techniques. As the TRI document reminds its readers, this report does not reflect the exposure of the public to chemicals.

Moreover, the TRI report said that Texas leads the nation in its reduction of releases, and other EPA data show that air quality has improved for five of the six national air pollutants in all large cities but one (El Paso). Half of all Texas cities are below the national average for these pollutants and that the proportion of its rivers that are "impaired" is better than the national average.

I don't know whether Bush deserves all the credit for this; after all, many of the improvements may result from the enforcement of national standards and the advent of better production technologies. But it is apparent that Texas, like most states, has improved the environment and that it ranks better than many states (and its cities better than many other cities) in what it has achieved.

You would think that before Gore unleashed his ads, he would have checked with Browner at the EPA to get the facts straight. Then again, maybe he did.

But there is only one real mystery here. Why did the national press ignore the incompatibility between Gore's claims and the real facts? If Bush had made similar charges about pollution in Tennessee, there is little doubt that the press would have put them under the microscope. Perhaps this is a way of explaining how valence issues really play out in presidential politics. If people agree that some goal is desirable, then how a candidate handles that issue will depend on what arguments the press will let slip by.

Recall what happened to Bush's father when a group supporting him ran the Willie Horton ads. It was an effort by those backing the elder Bush to suggest that on crime (another valence issue) he was closer to how people felt than was Michael Dukakis. The national press came down hard on Bush, claiming his argument was unfair or even racist. To the national media, crime is the "wrong" valence issue because being tough on crime (something that almost all Americans want) is the "wrong" reaction. But the environment is a good valence issue because being tough about it is the "right" reaction.

Whatever the merits of the two candidates, the Gore people understand the press better than do the Bush supporters. If Bush wins, this is a lesson he ought to take with him into the White House. 

James Q. Wilson is the author of books about crime, politics, bureaucracy, and human character.

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