The second presidential debate was, by any measure, better than the first. Bush recovered from his twitchy, petulant performance of Sep. 30 and Kerry was, if anything, even more concise (lo, a miracle!) and direct. More importantly, the questions from audience members were better — more substantive, less circumspect — than anything asked by the “official” media-types refereeing the VP and first presidential debates.

However, Kerry flubbed one question that should have been a home run for him.  As you might guess, I’m talking about the environmental question.  Here’s a policy area where, unlike many others, Kerry has a clear, consistent, and almost uniformly strong record.  Bush, on the other hand, is rated the worst environmental president ever by just about everybody — including, increasingly, members of his own party, mid-level officials in his agencies, and conservationists from the traditionally right-leaning hook-and-bullet crowd.

But Bush dodged the bullet.He reverted to his masterful duck-and-weave routine, throwing up a smoke screen of non-sequiters and policy details that only wonks realize ought to be badges of shame.  The man actually said he planned to “increase the wetlands by 3 million.” Which sounds nice and all until one ponders, you know, 3 million what?  Tablespoons?  Hectares?  Wetland units?  And how many wetlands have been lost under his administration? And how many would have been created even if he’d done nothing?  

He said he “proposed a hydrogen automobile — hydrogen-generated automobile.”  Yeah?  And they bashed Gore for saying he invented the internet?  He said there had been “fewer water complaints” under his administration.  What, I ask you, does that even mean?

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But the core of Bush’s answer was that technology will save us: “…that’s the way to get from how we live today to being able to live a standard of living that we’re accustomed to and being able to protect our environment better, the use of technologies.”

Kerry could have taken him to town, both on the details and on the broader point that technology will not, in fact, save us.  But instead he reverted to his pre-October rambling, droning self, getting off a few lame jokes about how Bush doesn’t live in the “world of reality” (huh?), something about the Red Sox, and lamely concluding that Bush had “pulled out of the global warming.”  Is that some sort of birth control reference?

Anyway, decide for yourself.  Here’s the question, from one James Hubb, bless him, who asked: “Mr. President, how would you rate yourself as an environmentalist? What specifically has your administration done to improve the condition of our nation’s air and water supply?”

The transcript of the candidates’ responses:

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BUSH: Off-road diesel engines — we have reached an agreement to reduce pollution from off-road diesel engines by 90 percent.

I’ve got a plan to increase the wetlands by 3 million. We’ve got an aggressive brown field program to refurbish inner-city sore spots to useful pieces of property.

I proposed to the United States Congress a Clear Skies Initiative to reduce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury by 70 percent.

I have — was fought for a very strong title in the farm bill for the conservation reserve program to set aside millions of acres of land to help improve wildlife and the habitat.

We proposed and passed a healthy forest bill which was essential to working with — particularly in Western states — to make sure that our forests were protected. What happens in those forests, because of lousy federal policy, is they grow to be — they are not — they’re not harvested. They’re not taken care of. And as a result, they’re like tinderboxes.

And over the last summers I’ve flown over there. And so, this is a reasonable policy to protect old stands of trees and at the same time make sure our forests aren’t vulnerable to the forest fires that have destroyed acres after acres in the West.

We’ve got a good, common-sense policy.

Now, I’m going to tell you what I really think is going to happen over time is technology is going to change the way we live for the good for the environment.

That’s why I proposed a hydrogen automobile — hydrogen-generated automobile. We’re spending $1 billion to come up with the technologies to do that.

That’s why I’m a big proponent of clean coal technology, to make sure we can use coal but in a clean way.

I guess you’d say I’m a good steward of the land.

The quality of the air’s cleaner since I’ve been the president. Fewer water complaints since I’ve been the president. More land being restored since I’ve been the president.

Thank you for your question.

GIBSON: Senator Kerry, minute and a half.

KERRY: Boy, to listen to that — the president, I don’t think, is living in a world of reality with respect to the environment.

Now, if you’re a Red Sox fan, that’s OK. But if you’re a president, it’s not.

Let me just say to you, number one, don’t throw the labels around. Labels don’t mean anything.

I supported welfare reform. I led the fight to put 100,000 cops on the streets of America. I’ve been for faith-based initiatives helping to intervene in the lives of young children for years. I was — broke with my party in 1985, one of the first three Democrats to fight for a balanced budget when it was heresy.

Labels don’t fit, ladies and gentlemen.

Now, when it comes to the issue of the environment, this is one of the worst administrations in modern history. The Clear Skies bill that he just talked about, it’s one of those Orwellian names you pull out of the sky, slap it onto something, like “No Child Left Behind” but you leave millions of children behind. Here they’re leaving the skies and the environment behind.

If they just left the Clean Air Act all alone the way it is today, no change, the air would be cleaner that it is if you pass the Clear Skies act. We’re going backwards.

In fact, his environmental enforcement chief air-quality person at the EPA resigned in protest over what they’re doing to what are calling the new source performance standards for air quality.

They’re going backwards on the definition for wetlands. They’re going backwards on the water quality.

They pulled out of the global warming, declared it dead, didn’t even accept the science. I’m going to be a president who believes in science.

GIBSON: Mr. President?

BUSH: Well, had we joined the Kyoto treaty, which I guess he’s referring to, it would have cost America a lot of jobs.

It’s one of these deals where, in order to be popular in the halls of Europe, you sign a treaty. But I thought it would cost a lot — I think there’s a better way to do it.

And I just told you the facts, sir. The quality of the air is cleaner since I’ve been the president of the United States. And we’ll continue to spend money on research and development, because I truly believe that’s the way to get from how we live today to being able to live a standard of living that we’re accustomed to and being able to protect our environment better, the use of technologies.

GIBSON: Senator Kerry, 30 seconds.

KERRY: The fact is that the Kyoto treaty was flawed. I was in Kyoto, and I was part of that. I know what happened. But this president didn’t try to fix it. He just declared it dead, ladies and gentlemen, and we walked away from the work of 160 nations over 10 years.

You wonder, Nikki, why it is that people don’t like us in some parts of the world. You just say: Hey, we don’t agree with you. Goodbye.

The president’s done nothing to try to fix it. I will.