Dirk Kempthorne, the Democrats' godsend.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Aug. 5 2003 6:00 PM

Dirk Kempthorne, the Dems' Godsend

Bush's awful possible choice to run the EPA.

The Bush White House is seriously considering making Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. In today's Idaho Statesman, Wayne Hoffman quotes Kempthorne saying he "would have to consider" any offer from the president. That means he wants the job. Kempthorne also said that he's been in periodic contact with White House staffers about the job. The Wall Street Journal's "Washington Wire" column predicted July 18 that Bush would wait until the Senate recess before announcing Kempthorne as his choice. The recess began Friday.

If it is Kempthorne, Bush will have made a comically anti-environmental choice. During six years in the Senate in the 1990s, Kempthorne scored a "0" on the League of Conservation Voters' legislative scorecards every year except 1993, when Kempthorne scored 6 percent on the basis of one little-remembered vote against funding a rocket booster for the space program that environmentalists judged harmful to the environment. Knight Ridder's Seth Borenstein reported June 23 that in the two years after Kempthorne became governor of Idaho, the state increased toxic emissions by 2 percent—this during a period when the national average declined by 9 percent. The chief of staff for Idaho's Department of Environmental Quality told Borenstein that environmental inspections were at "a bare-bones minimum" aimed only at staying in compliance with a state court order. Kempthorne did battle with EPA Administrator Christie Whitman over an Idaho Superfund cleanup, at one point threatening to evict EPA officials from the state.

All of this raises an obvious question: How did the Democrats get so lucky? Kempthorne would be a disaster as EPA administrator, but he would be a godsend to Democratic candidates in 2004 who want to run against Bush's environmental record. Guy Gugliotta and Mike Allen reported last April in the Washington Post that GOP strategists have no interest in pursuing "voters concerned primarily with the environment," whom they view as a lost cause. Instead, Gugliotta and Allen reported, they're courting "moderate Republican-leaning voters in the suburbs who care about the environment and want to know they're not joining into a party that favors poisoning the water and fogging the air," in the words of GOP consultant Clifford D. May. But a Kempthorne appointment would surely doom these efforts and hand the Democrats a formidable wedge issue.

Karl Rove must know this. Why is he allowing it? Does he think Kempthorne will be worth more in campaign contributions from industry than he'll cost in electoral votes? Is talk of Kempthorne as EPA administrator a feint aimed at muting criticism of the slightly less terrible choice Bush really has in mind? (Apparently that's the theory of some environmentalists.) Or has Rove grown overconfident?

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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