Is Bush digging his political
grave with enviro rollbacks?

Photo: White House.

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Who says George W. Bush never did anything for the great outdoors? His running for reelection could be the best thing to happen to the U.S. environmental movement in years. The threat of four more years of Bush has provoked a significant rethinking of the movement’s tactics, according to interviews with movement leaders, their financial supporters, and political advisers. Not only has it energized activists like never before, it has also produced unprecedented expressions of unity within the movement and beyond — specifically with labor unions, feminist organizations, and civil rights groups. While the short-term goal is a new president in 2004, some environmental leaders hope the Beat Bush campaign will help these groups build working relationships that could give rise to a broad-based progressive movement in the United States.

“George W. Bush said when he was running for president that he would be the great unifier, not the divider, and damned if he hasn’t been the greatest unifier of the environmental movement since I’ve been in it,” says John Passacantando, the executive director of Greenpeace USA. “And that’s true within the entire progressive movement and beyond. From tongue-studded anarchists to business-oriented think tanks, we’ve all come to realize that Bush represents the greatest threat to all that we hold dear.”

One manifestation of this new unity is America Votes, an alliance of 20 citizens groups that was organized earlier this year by leaders from environmental, labor, and women’s organizations. Members include the AFL-CIO and other unions, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and The environmental movement is represented in the coalition by the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters.

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America Votes will exercise electoral clout through a so-called 527 group named America Coming Together. (Organizations registered under section 527 of the federal tax code are permitted to engage in voter education and turnout work but not outright advocacy for candidates.) ACT has raised $35 million to spend on the 2004 campaign, $10 million of which was donated by George Soros, the currency trader and philanthropist. The group hopes eventually to raise $75 million.

“It’s actually easier for us to work together on elections than on policy work,” Deb Callahan, the executive director of LCV, says of her allies within ACT. “On a policy issue like logging or mining, we might be on the opposite side of the fence from, say, a labor union. But an election puts those kinds of differences in the background, because it presents a simple choice: Do you elect this candidate or not? And we all agree that four more years of Bush would be a disaster.”

“The environmental movement traditionally hasn’t focused many resources on electoral work,” observes one prominent funder of environmental organizations who declined to be named. “The Sierra Club and LCV spent $16 million during the two-year cycle leading up to the 2000 election. But that’s dwarfed by the annual budgets of groups who do public education and policy work, such as the National Wildlife Federation [$100 million per year] and Natural Resources Defense Council [$50 million per year]. America Coming Together gives environmentalists the prospect of real electoral impact and, for the first time, real coordination with other progressive groups.”

Exactly what this new progressive unity will mean on the ground remains to be seen. The ACT groups are only beginning to find their way, cautions the funder quoted above: “To borrow a scientific analogy, this collaboration began in a gaseous state and has now progressed to a liquefied state, but it is still far from a solid state.” But the groups’ leaders talk about coordinating messages and communication schedules — for example, to make sure that a given household doesn’t get deluged with five pieces of anti-Bush mail on a single day and then receive nothing during the next two weeks — and dividing up outreach responsibility for certain battleground states to assure the most efficient use of all groups’ electoral resources.

And those resources, they promise, will be unprecedented. “The scale of the commitment is phenomenal,” says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. “Over the next 13 months, we are committed to doubling the number of volunteer activists we have in the field and the number of households we contact, and my sense is that the other organizations in America Votes are doing the same.”

Their Roots Are Showing

Not only are enviros and other progressives spending more on the 2004 election, they are also spending differently. Thirty-second television ads, whose astronomical costs devoured budgets in the past, are being abandoned as ineffectual because voters are no longer moved by them. Instead, says Pope, electoral strategists of all ideological persuasions recognize that “what works is talking to people one on one, and especially having them hear your message from their friends and neighbors.”

“Unions showed in 2000 that grassroots organizing led to a higher turnout of their members, which made the difference in a number of key races,” Callahan says. “The Republicans applied that lesson successfully in 2002, and I expect the White House will do the same in 2004. Our movement’s focus traditionally has been grassroots organizing, and we’ve got to get back to that. Two-thirds of my 2004 budget is for grassroots organizing. In 2002, it was only 20 percent.”

Grassroots organizing is critical; if environmental groups simply get their own members to vote, it could make all the difference in 2004. Some 11 million Americans belong to environmental organizations. Yet surveys reveal that in recent elections, those members have voted in no greater proportion than other Americans. In the 17 states expected to be the decisive battlegrounds in 2004, the Sierra Club alone boasts more members than the margins of victory in the 2000 election. “Had every Sierra Club member voted in 2000, not only would Al Gore be president but Tom Daschle would be Senate majority leader and Dick Gephardt would be speaker of the House,” says Pope.

What environmentalists haven’t done is endorse a particular candidate for president. Partly that’s for legal reasons: Only so-called (c)(4) groups (registered under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code), like LCV and Sierra Club, are allowed to advocate voting for or against candidates, using funds garnered from non-tax-deductible donations. But America Votes, as a 527, is precluded from such advocacy. So are the 501(c)(3) groups that comprise the majority of the U.S. environmental movement. (c)(3)s are restricted to public education and policy work, giving them access to tax-deductible donations (which is why their annual budgets are typically much larger than those of (c)(4) groups).

“We can’t take part in the 2004 electoral work, but our public education efforts will inform that work,” says Rodger Schlickeisen, the chair of Save Our Environment, a coalition of 20 (c)(3) and (c)(4) groups that have pooled resources and coordinated strategies to resist Bush administration policies. SOE members include Defenders of Wildlife (where Schlickeisen is president), Friends of the Earth, Environmental Defense, the Wilderness Society, Greenpeace, NRDC, LCV, and Sierra Club.

A second reason no candidate endorsement is imminent is that environmentalists want to unite behind whoever emerges from the Democratic primaries to challenge Bush. “Any of these Democrats is better than Bush on the environment, so we’re not going to endorse any one of them yet,” says Callahan, whose organization awarded Bush the first-ever “F” on its annual “report card” on environmental voting records. “Instead, we’re building on-the-ground infrastructure that will kick into gear for the nominee once the general election begins.”

But in their zeal to get rid of Bush, will environmentalists let Democrats off easy?

“It’s important not only to make Bush’s and the Republicans’ stand on environmental issues clear, but also to hold Democratic candidates to a much higher standard than Bill Clinton and Al Gore were,” says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, another (c)(3) group precluded from electoral activities. “For a long time, Democrats have talked a good game on the environment and then failed once in office to put their political capital on the line for it. … A campaign that simply reiterates horror stories about Bush’s policies won’t accomplish its goals. Americans want to see a vision of what needs doing over the next four years to extend 30 years of environmental progress. That’s the bar environmentalists should hold all the candidates to.”

White Flags, Green Futures

All this, insiders admit, is a marked shift from the infighting that has often afflicted the environmental movement in recent years.

“The various groups used to scuffle over who would be the one quoted in media reports about whatever the environmental rollback of the week was,” says Passacantando of Greenpeace. “How dumb is that — fighting to get credit for a battle we’re losing!” The new unity, Passacantando argues, stems not only from the Bush threat but from the decline in donations groups have suffered in the face of a recession and a weak stock market. “Having less money has forced each group to focus on what it does best. So now you see the grassroots groups doing grassroots organizing, the lobbyists doing lobbying, and so forth. We’re stronger for it.”

Environmentalists also take heart from the knowledge that, as leading Republican strategist Frank Luntz wrote in a memo that was leaked to the New York Times earlier this year, “the environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general — and President Bush in particular — are most vulnerable.” With Bush’s poll numbers dropping thanks to a faltering economy and growing unease about Iraq, environmentalists are convinced that he can be defeated in 2004 and that their issue can help make it happen.

“There is no question that the president and all of the Democratic candidates have spotlighted the environmental issue as key to reaching certain constituencies,” says Clapp. “The environment is an issue that matters in the swing states that each side wants: Oregon, Washington, Florida, the industrial Midwest. The president left his ranch in Crawford three times this summer to do events to promote his Clear Skies rollback of the Clean Air Act. And for Democrats, the environment is one of the three or four issues each candidate lists as a key difference between him or her and the president.”

Questions remain, however, about what kind of practical results all this high-minded talk will produce in 2004. After all, the environmental movement is relatively inexperienced in electoral work, and it is gearing up operations very fast. Can the Sierra Club, in a mere 13 months, really double the number of activists it has on the ground (to 20,000) and the number of households these activists will reach (to 800,000)? Can Save Our Environment groups that remain largely focused on inside-the-Beltway concerns shift to talking in plain-spoken terms to the millions of ordinary Americans whose votes will decide the outcome on Election Day? And after years of internal bickering and distance from other progressive groups and issues, can environmentalists really walk the walk of unity and cooperation?

“It’s nice people are working more together now, but the old ego and turf battles haven’t gone away,” says one movement insider. “All the old incentives against collaboration remain in place; groups still have to get media coverage and other forms of credit for their accomplishments in order to maintain funders’ support and survive.”

On the other hand, the environmental movement’s motivation is growing stronger by the day, fueled by the Bush administration’s continued assault on ecosystems and the laws meant to protect them. And looking toward the long term, some environmental leaders say the Bush threat may finally force environmentalists and other progressive organizations to learn how to work together and thus begin building the kind of broad-based movement that could yield real change in America.

“It’s self-interest that’s bringing us together,” says Callahan of LCV. “If we don’t cooperate, we’ll certainly fail to put a progressive in the White House in 2004. But if we succeed, we can build relations and trust that will continue beyond the election and result in something much larger than ourselves. Look at how the right wing took power in this country — by following a long-term vision of building a movement of like-minded organizations. It’s been my dream for a long time, and we’re now finally doing the same.”