It’s the Economy Environment, Stupid

It’s the Economy Environment, Stupid

Most strategists agree that it will be easier for Democrats to fight George W. Bush on domestic issues than to dwell on his post-September 11 national security policies. One obvious, but as yet untapped, Bush administration vulnerability is environmental policy. Polls show that voters side strongly with Democrats on environmental issues, and because Bush has a clear record of relaxing environmental standards, it should be possible to expose his shortcomings in this area.

A recent Gallup poll found that 75 percent of likely voters support stronger environmental regulation. But that hardly matters if Democrats do not make the president’s record as a poor environmental steward a key issue during the 2004 campaign. The Democrats must take that opposition and turn it into votes.

In an AP/Ipsos poll, only 3 percent of respondents list the environment as one of the most important problems facing the United States. This poll reveals a disconnect: Americans disagree with Bush’s environmental policies but don’t care enough to base their presidential votes on the disagreement. In order to be heard, activists will have to reframe environmental issues and link them to issues that do rank high in the public’s mind-the economy and health care. If Democrats can demonstrate the concrete and actual link between the environment and these two, they can greatly strengthen their case against Bush.

Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign staff made famous the idea of focusing on “the economy, stupid!” But the truth is that almost every national campaign centers on money in some way-taxes, economic growth, the stock market, unemployment, and the cost of living. Voters see those issue areas as related. Democrats can win support for their environmental positions by employing two of Bush’s successful tactics: linking his pet issues to the economy-as he has done in his controversial push for oil drilling in an Alaska wildlife refuge-and framing issues in clear and simple alternatives. This won’t mean abandoning the environment as a campaign theme, but it will mean framing it differently. Voters care about, and will vote for, more money in their pockets, jobs, better health for their children, and removal of dangers to everyone’s health. Let’s examine four environmental issues that show how this reframing can be done.

Alaska Wildlife

In this case, it was Bush who successfully reframed the issue-and so there is a lesson here. From the beginning of his presidency, Bush has pushed hard to open Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling. But his most effective argument for this policy was not that more domestic production would wean the nation away from Middle Eastern oil (such a strategy would only invite debate from economists over the value of sustaining the nation’s oil addiction). Rather, his most effective argument was jobs. Citi...