IS this a taste of the fall presidential campaign?
Marlin Fitzwater, the White House press secretary, charges that Democrat Bill Clinton has "the worst environmental record in America."
Governor Clinton denounces President Bush's policies on the environment as "reactive, rudderless, and expedient."
Three months before Democrats and Republicans formally select their nominees, Clinton and Bush are already throwing sludge at each other. It promises to get very messy, as the opening shots on the environment showed during the past few days.
Although Bush vowed in 1988 to be the "environmental president," Clinton accuses him of abandoning that campaign pledge. In a speech in Philadelphia, Clinton said that under Bush, "presidential leadership on the environment has become an endangered species."
Not to be rhetorically outgunned, Michael Deland, chairman of the president's Council on Environmental Quality, suggests that Clinton's efforts to gloss over his own "deplorable record" on the environment "gives new meaning to the word 'oil slick.' "
With a recession raging, jobs - not spotted owls - are the nation's top priority, so many Americans may ignore this ecological debate. Only 3 percent of the voters say the environment is the most important issue, according to an April 7-9 poll by the Wirthlin Group.
Yet both candidates know that in a close race, 3 percent of the voters could tip the outcome. Henry Diamond, a leading environmental lawyer in Washington, says that with many voters, the environment is also a "confidence-building issue." It solidifies support with moderate, swing voters.
Hoping to weaken Clinton among this group, Mr. Fitzwater charges that while he was governor of Arkansas, Clinton helped to worsen water pollution problems. "The man does know pollution," Fitzwater says. "He's got it, he's caused it, he's nurtured it, and he's done nothing to clean it up."
At a breakfast meeting with reporters, Mr. Deland observed that environmental groups have ranked Arkansas 48th and 50th in protecting the state's water and air. It is "the height of irony" for Clinton to "try to stake out some environmental turf," he charges.
As on all hotly debated issues, each side can score points. Each also admits that there are times when environmental concerns must be balanced with the need to create jobs, even if that causes additional damage to the water or air.
The Bush administration, for example, has resisted an increase in government standards for autos to 40 miles per gallon. The White House worries it would cost jobs in the US auto industry. Clinton favors the 40 m.p.g. standard by 2000, and 45 m.p.g. by 2020. Clinton admits that he, too, has sometimes traded the environment for jobs. He recently told one audience:
"I made the choice from time to time [in the 1980s] for jobs because my state was a poor one without either enough jobs or enough federal help to clean up the environment."
Clinton now rejects the notion that the environment must be sacrificed for jobs. He says one way to create jobs and protect the environment simultaneously is to boost energy efficiency by retrofitting homes with insulation and upgrading factories.
To counter Democratic attacks on his record, Bush has issued a 21-point paper that talks about his environmental accomplishments. Among them, he has:
* Launched the "world's most protective and market-oriented clear-air laws that will cut acid rain ... in half...."
* Announced a moratorium on offshore oil and gas development until 2001 for 99 percent of the California coast, plus Oregon, Washington, southern Florida, and New England.
* Set enforcement records by collecting more civil penalties in two years than the Environmental Protection Agency had won during its entire history.
* Accelerated the phaseout of CFC's to the end of 1995, four years ahead of international deadlines.
* Led the way to ban driftnet fishing.
* Led the effort to halt trade in African elephant ivory.
* Launched a program to plant 1 billion trees per year in America.
Deland says this makes Bush the greatest environmental president since Teddy Roosevelt early in the 20th century.
But Clinton highlights a different part of Bush's record, one less likely to please environmentalists.
Bush "promised no net loss of America's wetlands, and tried to hand half of them back over to developers," Clinton charges. "He invoked Teddy Roosevelt's devotion to preserving our natural heritage, then called for the opening of the Arctic Wilderness to oil drilling.
"He talks about the need for an energy policy, then went to Detroit on the eve of the Michigan primary to promise our automakers that he wouldn't raise the fuel-efficiency standards for American cars.
"He called for an international summit on the environment, but now he is single-handedly blocking a historic meeting in Rio de Janiero of 100 nations to control global warming," Clinton says. One of the clearest differences between the two men is energy policy. Bush would build more nuclear plants. Clinton would not. Clinton would pull funds away from nuclear research to pour money into wind and solar research. Bush would not.