Bush Let Politics Betray Eco-Leanings

MOST analysis of George Bush's unsuccessful reelection bid includes his failure to project himself as "the environment president." To many voters, this was a major campaign promise unfulfilled. The image of Uncle Sam dragging behind at the Earth Summit in Brazil last summer - and being thrashed by the rest of the world as a result - seemed to epitomize this administration's attitude toward environmental protection.

The irony is that politics and administration infighting aside, the Bush administration in fact has quite a commendable record here - certainly in comparison with the preceding eight years.

Sitting in his office in the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House, Michael Deland, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, ticks off the accomplishments: Record prosecution of polluters; healthy increases in the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and in allotments for renewable energy at a time when belt-tightening was the norm; a billion dollars in new national parks and wildlife refuges; a 10-year moratorium on oil and gas drilling off most of the Unite d States' coasts; an accelerated phase-out of ozone-damaging chemicals; passage of clean-air legislation. These and other achievements during the Bush years will benefit the country for decades to come.

Another achievement that Mr. Deland - whose energy and talent for getting things done are not impeded by the wheelchair in the corner - should take most of the credit for is bringing together environmental and business leaders. This growing partnership is beginning to transcend the traditional standoff between the two.

Called the President's Commission on Environmental Quality, the partnership was put together in mid-1991. Its 25 members include four senior officials from environmental groups and four business leaders affiliated with the forward-looking Business Council for Sustainable Development. To date, more than 200 businesses and other organizations have joined the commission's model initiatives in such areas as waste reduction, energy conservation, and protecting biodiversity.

The commission and its programs are a good idea that the new administration should preserve. In any case, they represent another plus mark on Mr. Bush's environmental record.

But that record - and the potential that existed for even greater accomplishment - was overshadowed by a not-so-private campaign by some administration heavyweights to undercut reasonable policy measures advocated by Deland and EPA Administrator William Reilly. Time and again, budget officials, White House staff, and those close to Vice President Dan Quayle argued that environmental protection inevitably hurts the economy.

Not only is this a faulty analysis of the real relationship between pollution prevention, resource conservation, and economic well-being, but it's bad politics as well.

About the time Mr. Bush began feeling the heat from the right in the form of Pat Buchanan, he seemed to abandon his environmental pledge altogether. He wavered on whether even to go to the largest-ever gathering of heads of state, and he left Mr. Reilly in a difficult position as chief Earth Summit negotiator for the US. It was an odd scene watching Tim Wirth, a Democratic senator, having to stand up and defend the US record on environmental protection after Reilly had endured yet another grilling by the

international press gathered in Rio.

Bill Clinton is not known for a strong environmental record himself, but his rhetoric (and tapping of Al Gore as running mate) made him look more progressive on the issue than Bush. For many voters, this was one important factor in their choice.

So Deland and Reilly are packing up, heading for whatever next step their careers bring. Both are professionals in their field - Deland was New England regional administrator for the EPA, and Reilly headed the World Wildlife Fund. No doubt they will continue to contribute - especially as business increasingly embraces environmentalism while the environmental movement increasingly accepts market mechanisms as a logical tool to achieve its ends.

Bush's failure was not in his level of commitment to environmental protection but in his inability or unwillingness to knock heads at the White House to get the full team behind his promise. He should have listened more closely to Bill Reilly and Mike Deland. And to his own best instincts.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.