I got home yesterday from canvassing for Barack Obama in the outskirts of Harrisburg, Penn. and found last week’s edition of The Patriot-News (whose politics reporter, Brett Lieberman, describes the state as “Pennsyltucky” for its unique mix of urban, industrial, and backwoods), including a “Find Your Match” voter guide with a chart that’s supposed to help people figure out which candidate is closer to them on key policies. Here’s what the chart said about Obama, Clinton, and McCain on global warming:

Clinton: $150 billion, 10-year energy package for new fuel sources; backed stringent caps on greenhouse-gas emissions.
Obama: $150 billion, 10-year program for “climate friendly” energy supplies, favors stringent caps on greenhouse-gas emissions.
McCain: Led Senate effort to cap greenhouse-gas emissions; favors tougher fuel efficiency.

Of course, this chart hardly captures the reality of the situation: McCain’s plan to tackle the climate crisis is far more modest than either of the Dems’, would include billions in polluter giveaways and would be far less than what we need to stop an even greater climate disaster than the one we’re currently experiencing. But to your average journalist, and hence to the general public, McCain seems like a leader despite his 24 percent lifetime LCV score (and full-pander 0 percent 2007 score).

I think this chart illustrates a challenge the environmental movement has recognized since 2002: If a candidate aggressively embraces greenwashing, it’s really hard to convince the public that they aren’t environmentalists, even if they have atrocious records (this was a particular problem in the 2002 Colorado and New Hampshire Senate races, when Republicans Wayne Allard and John Sununu wrapped themselves in a green mantle). When Republicans say they care about the environment and will act to defend it, people tend to believe them, no matter the truth of it. Because of that, green groups like Sierra Club and LCV have to a great extent shifted the focus of their election spending to grassroots work, especially against aggressive greenwashers, and they have generated impressive wins as a result.

We’ve got to keep this in mind as we seek to define McCain. One of the conclusions of my new book, Fear and Courage in the Democratic Party, is that for the overwhelming majority of voters, candidates’ issue positions on even the most high profile of issues (like the economy and Iraq) don’t have a major impact on their vote choice.

But that doesn’t meant environment can’t be used in the campaign. What somebody did on an issue can shape how voters view their character, which is a trait that has a powerful impact on voters’ decisions. That means focusing on specifics and telling a story, not just citing issue positions and imagining that voters care or know as much as we environmentalists do.

One example (via Sierra Club’s Carl Pope): how John McCain sat on his plane on the tarmac at D.C.’s Dulles Airport and refused (for the second time) to go vote on a provision that would have shifted billions in subsidies from oil companies to clean energy like solar and wind power — leaving the bill one vote short of what it needed to pass. That hardly demonstrates the straight talk and strong leadership McCain is striving for. And that’s the perfect kind of story for environmentalists to tell that everyone will get.