Now, this may be pure speculation, but I’m willing to bet George W. was no slouch with the young ladies back in high school and college. He may not have had Astroturf in the back of his pickup truck like some ex-presidents (Gerald Ford, I’m looking in your general direction…), but the guy could get a date. So why when it comes to environmental policy does he have to act like a lactose-intolerant Star Wars geek trying to impress the girls?
Bush should just learn to be comfortable in his nerdy Republican skin when it comes to green issues, but instead, in a misguided attempt to show that he can play hacky sack as well as the stoners and jocks, today the president is unveiling a plan to fight global warming.
It’s a bad plan by both conservative and liberal standards. The basic idea is to create a “voluntary” carbon trading system in lieu of the cast-aside Kyoto agreement. To liberals it’s a bad plan because the U.S. economy is still able to function (maybe this is overstating their stance). To conservatives it’s a bad plan because it follows the esteemed Republican motto of “Whatever the Democrats want, just three years slower.” Nonetheless — and this is all the Bush people really care about — it’s a plan.
Before you jump up and shout, “No, don’t go in there, it’s a trap!,” or “Global warming doesn’t even exist for the love of God!” remember that Bush is no idiot — even if he does like the musical “Cats.” The administration is clearly executing a considered political strategy. It just happens to be a bad one.
The main premise of this strategy is that Bush is extremely vulnerable on The Environment. In that far-off world before September 11th, there was a point to be made on this score. Bush made significant strides in closing the gender gap in 2000 (Dole polled below Andrew Dice Clay among women in 1996), but there was still a gap. And what those Red and Blue maps don’t show is how much the last election was fought in the suburbs — and that soccer moms, therefore, were more important than ever.
For that reason, both Republicans and Democrats in early 2001 knew that the environment — an issue near and dear to the hearts of soccer moms, and some of the longer-haired hockey dads — would be a major battleground in 2002 and 2004. Karl Rove was forced to spend an inordinate amount of time putting out fires on issues such as Kyoto, arsenic, ANWR and the like, all the while plotting to somehow co-opt The Environment as Bush had done with some success on education.
Of course, this was all before the War on Terrorism. But now that Bush’s approval rating is hovering consistently in territory usually occupied by “candy” and “free stuff,” its difficult to see why the administration feels the need to play defense.
The administration, however, thinks it’s playing offense. While the Republican geek might be popular right now, they’re worried that once his heroism fades from memory the soccer moms will start looking for a sensitive New Age guy again. The best way to head that off? Clear up that acne, lose the glasses, get some dreds, and start ostentatiously “caring” about the environment — but quick.
There’s only one problem with this strategy: It’s stupid and it won’t work. (Maybe that’s two problems.)
The crux of the problem is the media, and Bush damn well knows it; we all saw that picture of him carrying Bernard Goldberg’s book “Bias” under his arm on his way out of Washington a few weeks back. No matter what Bush does on the environment, he has to know he will never get any credit. He could personally gut-punch every energy CEO in the country, and the headline the next day would read “Bush Meets with Energy Executives, Discusses Tax Breaks.”
The media’s narrative is “Texas oilman kills trees and bunnies while steering money to his plutocrat friends,” and anything that doesn’t fit that narrative will simply be ignored. Likewise, the public has been conditioned not to trust Republicans on the environment, as is demonstrated in poll after poll. Bush might be able to soften the party’s image in this regard, but that’s what speeches and photo-ops are for.
What is certainly not the way to soften the party’s image is to concede the opposition’s point and give in to their demands — and to do it so incrementally that you don’t even get any credit for it.
Carbon trading is a bad idea that will raise energy prices for consumers and Bush should stand on principle against it. And if principle isn’t enough to hold Bush in place on the issue, perhaps he should remember his father. Good ol’ 41 gave us the Clean Air Act of 1990. Did the press gush over his enviro-friendly policies? Nope. Did his conservative base remember being sold out? Yep. A geek can go over and try and play hacky sack with the cool kids, but they’re more likely to give him a wedgie than a ride to the prom.
Ryan H. Sager is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.