By Tommy Hough
After seven years of George W. Bush, it's nice to see excited Democrats turning out in droves to vote in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. But as is the case with early contests in an election year, there have already been casualties.
One casualty is veteran Delaware senator and long-time Capitol Hill foreign policy pro Joe Biden, who folded his first presidential run since an earlier try 20 years ago in 1988 after a crushing one percent (!) finish in last week's contest in Iowa. Biden's failure to gain any traction, along with that of his Senate colleague Chris Dodd of Connecticut, appears to be the result of several things, one being the word on everyone's lips this season: change. And these two sitting senators don't strike anyone as agents of change, or even a breath of fresh air.
Illinois Senator Barack Obama seems to have been the first candidate to start using the word change in this election cycle, and it's worked. Add to the fact Obama is an appealing, young, likable candidate (my personal favorite in the presidential field) and the new guy on Capitol Hill, it makes sense he's casting himself as an agent of change. Even former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has been trying to sell everyone on his being an agent of change, though he probably benefitted more than anyone else, certainly of the other presidential candidates, from the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003. Call it another line of course corrections Romney has made to try and fit into the conversation of the moment.
Some have argued the lack of interest in Joe Biden and Chris Dodd has been because there hasn't been one particular issue for their campaigns to coalesce around. As much of a foreign policy expert as Biden is, he wasn't able to spin it in any meaningful way that gave an identity or brought any amount of enthusiasm to his effort. Chris Dodd is even more of a blank slate for those who aren't from New England.
And while being the change agent has worked for Obama thus far in giving his campaign an identity and momentum, Hillary Clinton has tried make health care her calling card. Goodness knows we could use universal health care in this economy, but with the cautious former First Lady it's unlikely she'd support any kind of reform that far-reaching.
For Mike Huckabee, the Republican governor of Clinton's former home state of Arkansas, being an evangelical minister palling around with Chuck Norris has been part of his awkward identity, though it doesn't advance much of an argument for becoming president beyond his chummy TV commercials. Being the "nation's mayor" in the wake of 9/11 has given former New York City mayor and federal prosecutor Rudy Giuliani something for his campaign to hang its hat on, but no one, Democrat or Republican, has bothered to cultivate themselves as the environmental choice.
Even when he was running for president eight years ago, everyone knew Al Gore was all about the environment – that was a critical part of the vice president's identity and appeal, long before An Inconvenient Truth arrived in theaters. But as trendy as being green has become, it's been missing in action during this cycle's political discourse other than the credentials Governor Bill Richardson, the greenest of Democratic candidates, brings to the table nationally and as governor of New Mexico. So what gives? Did we all decide to stop breathing air and drinking water?
Rather, it's a matter of voters not demanding a greater environmental agenda – a problem that has plagued the conservation movement for the last 15 years following the resolution of some of the nation's biggest environmental struggles, like the Clinton administration's negotiation of the landmark Northwest Forest Plan in 1994. All of the current presidential candidates will bark out pro-environmental platitudes if asked, but for most it's on the far backburner when it comes to actionable policy.
For the Republicans, Huckabee and Arizona Senator John McCain have made the most frequent mentions of the environment, but in McCain's case it's often through the Libertarian lens of his mentor Barry Goldwater. For Huckabee, it's more a matter of his belief that God gave "dominion" to humans over the earth, and therefore he believes it's the responsibility of humans to care for the planet in God's image. Not sure how fracking fits in that equation.
I could spend a week on the litany of high environmental crimes and misdemeanors perpetrated by the Bush administration in the name of their secret handshake country club pals in Corporate America, but the latest is the declawing of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is now preventing states from setting standards they see fit to keep their air clean beyond federal mandates.
Where individual states are seeking to clean up their act on their own, and in effect, do the job the EPA was designed to do in 1970 but has been prevented from doing so by the Bush (and Cheney) administration's excessively pro-industry efforts, interested states are now unable to get appropriate federal waivers from the EPA. So California, a state with a Republican governor no less, has to sue along with 15 other states to be able to do so.
And it goes beyond that. Lest we forget when choosing our next president the cruel, Orwellian tone and right-is-wrong meanings behind seemingly innocuous terms like "healthy forests" and "clear skies," as cynical as "no child left behind." Let's not forget about Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) science and botanical professionals who had their jobs snatched away and outsourced to private firms that aren't any more economical, but are more likely to submit environmental impact report (EIR) studies and data that conveniently give the answers a business-enabled Interior Department really wants.
Let's not forget about the Forest Service employees fired or even sued by their own agency for doing their jobs and not turning a secret handshake blind eye. Let's not forget about the enabling and encouraging of unregulated, destructive off-road vehicle (ORV) and snowmobile use in our National Forests, where hiking trails are being modified as you read this into wider, more level, graded off-road vehicle or dirt bike highways through our wilderness. Let's not forget about the National Parks Service (NPS) being bullied into allowing snowmobiles into the wintertime backcountry of Yellowstone National Park.
When I first moved west the mantra was our National Parks are just that: National Parks, not amusement parks. Humans can enjoy the parks without having to destroy them, or so tilt the environmental balance in humanity's favor and comfort that it squanders what we're trying to preserve and protect for all generations in National Parks in the first place.
The National Park Service (NPS), i.e. the federal apparatus that guards and maintains our nation's most precious places, is being strangled from a lack of funding for basic services – to say nothing of our parks being literally strangled from poor air quality, especially at locales like Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in Fresno and Tulare counties. A pending report from the National Park Service is expected to detail the most corrosive effects of air pollution at our National Parks. One of the sad realities to be revealed by the report is it's now too dangerous to fish in the lakes of Sequoia and Kings Canyon and eat what you catch.
If we as humans, and Americans, are unable to hear the earth screaming for help at this moment, then we are not only deaf but truly decadent. Who could've imagined the fish of the High Sierra would become too poisonous and too tainted by air pollution to consume? Acid rain. Toxic gunk. In fish in the bottom of lakes in the Sierra Nevada. And yet, the state of California still has to sue our own federal government to obtain EPA waivers so we can legislate our own tailpipe standards. Like many Republicans, the Bush administration is only for state's rights when it's convenient, and critical, for the financial health of the business class.
And it's not just who becomes president in 2008, it's who voters send, or send back, to Washington to represent them in Congress. Until he was prevented from doing so by a recent omnibus measure co-authored by Senators Feinstein and Boxer, Congressman Duncan Hunter wanted to make Santa Rosa Island in Channel Islands National Park (!) his own private hunting preserve (!!), ostensibly saying it was for disabled veterans in order to give himself maximum political cover. Never mind that getting to Santa Rosa Island and Channel Islands National Park requires a lengthy boat ride, Santa Rosa Island isn't exactly equipped with facilities for the disabled, and the congressman hadn't come up with an effective plan to get ride of the carcasses of the hunted elk and deer he longs to kill. Granted, elk and deer have to be off the island by 2013, but this can certainly be achieved in a humane manner that doesn't involve bloodlust or the murder of animals at point blank range, and prevents a National Park site from becoming a congressman's private fiefdom.
If you really want change this year, let's start by changing attitudes among candidates, regardless of party, because none of the presidential candidates are talking about climate, transportation, parks, regulatory agencies, or protection for our environment. Let's start asking tough questions of those who seek to lead this nation. Where are you on National Park Service funding? What will your federal wildfire policy look like? Will you require automobiles to become more fuel efficient? Will you enable the EPA to fulfill its mission to the American people? What kind of commitment will your administration make to National Parks, Wilderness areas, the BLM, and National Forests? What is your personal relationship with the environment?
Politicians need to have questions asked of them in order to know an issue is on the table. Once they know an issue is in play, they'll stake out positions. Find out what those positions are, and hold them to it if they're elected – then demand better. But as long as the public isn't demanding conservation, and stewardship of our nation's public lands isn't part of the national dialogue, those politicians debating, preening, and asking for your vote are going to remain utterly tone-deaf, with a big smile on their face.
A San Diego County planning commissioner and former radio host and media personality, Tommy Hough works as an environmental consultant and communications professional, and is a California Democratic Party delegate and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.