Dems play up their 'green' card

Sensing Bush's vulnerability on environment, they try to capitalize on Enron scandal by pushing 'soft' energy ideas.

Most Americans may picture George W. Bush in a Texas-size SUV or a presidential limo. But today, he'll be presenting a decidedly greener image, displaying fuel-cell and hybrid cars on the lawn of the White House.

As the Senate returns to a bruising debate on a new US energy policy, the environment is suddenly emerging as a key political issue - and one where Democrats see President Bush as vulnerable.

Two potential 2004 contenders, Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, have recently given speeches sharply attacking Mr. Bush's environmental policies. And former Vice President Al Gore, who has largely refrained from criticizing the president, issued a strong statement condemning the administration's approach to global warming.

In part, Democrats are seizing on the environment because it's one of the few areas where they still beat Bush in public opinion polls. Indeed, on the issues voters rank as top priorities - such as terrorism and the economy - Bush has a strong edge.

But Democrats are also attempting to cast environmental protection in a broader light. The war on terrorism, they say, highlights the need for an energy policy that doesn't rely as heavily on oil and the countries that supply it. And while environmentalism has often been seen as an elitist concern, Democrats are now linking it with populism, arguing that Bush's policies favor companies like Enron at the expense of the environment and the little guy.

"I believe the environment as an issue, combined with Enron, has the potential to unravel some of the White House's current standing," says Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster and strategist. "It has the potential to define President Bush and, to some extent, define his challengers on the Democratic side."

As a political issue, the environment has often been seen as having broad, but not terribly deep, support.

"When people are asked specifically about the environment, 80 percent of the American people consider themselves environmentalists," says Glen Sussman, author of "American Politics and the Environment." "But when they're given a list of issues, the environment drops way down. Even if you take terrorism out of the picture, the economy, jobs, crime, healthcare, education - those seem to be the major issues."

Low priority on election trail

As a result, he says, the environment has not been a prominent feature of most presidents' legislative or political agendas. And most mainstream presidential candidates tend not to emphasize it, either. During the 2000 campaign, Mr. Gore, who wrote an entire book on the environment, surprised many in the environmental community by not making it a central focus of his campaign.

"He would have won over more blue-haired ladies in suburban Richmond had he talked about it more," says Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's program on global warming and energy. But while strong environmental credentials may not lead to big rewards at the ballot box, a poor record on the environment can be damaging, say pollsters. "People view a clean environment as a norm and a value. It says something about your core beliefs," says Mr. Greenberg. "When someone gets it wrong, they pay a big price with the public."

Democrats believe this is what happened to Bush just prior to Sept. 11.

The president's poll numbers had fallen after the release of his energy plan, and the controversy over whether energy companies had had an undue amount of influence. This controversy has once more come to the fore, as the General Accounting Office filed suit last Friday against the administration to gain access to information about whom the vice president's energy task force met with when devising the plan.

Likewise, analysts say, the Enron scandal has given Democrats additional ammunition. "Bush has been pushing production more than conservation, and he did get contributions from Enron," says Professor Sussman. "What Democrats are trying to do is make a link between Enron, energy, and Bush."

Last week, Senator Lieberman announced he would conduct hearings on the administration's environmental record, calling Bush's policies "regressive." "Too often, when it comes to the environment, the Bush administration has stood up for the industries and interests that don't want to change because they profit from business as usual," he said.

Both Lieberman and Senator Kerry have called for a radical new approach to energy policy, casting the issue as a critical matter of both domestic leadership and foreign policy.

Slick debate over Arctic oil

While the president calls energy independence a key goal of his plan, Democrats say his approach, which encourages domestic exploration and production, would do nothing to lessen the nation's dependence on oil (or its reliance on other countries) since America's new sources will likely be quickly tapped out.

As a consequence, both men have also vowed to filibuster any proposal for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a central feature of Bush's energy plan.

While the proposal is not part of the Democratic bill being debated in the Senate, Republicans are expected to introduce it as an amendment.

Of course, for Democrats, focusing on the environment can lead to clashes with some of their own constituents, such as labor. The Teamsters Union, for example, says it favors drilling in the Arctic refuge.

But the Sierra Club's Becker says many unions are increasingly supportive of environmental causes, pointing to a recent collaboration between his group and three big unions on a "worker friendly" global-warming solution. The Enron scandal has helped in this area, he adds.

The average American thinks, "If you're for the environment, you're for people like me," he says. "If you're against protecting the environment, you're for those big guys in the oil and auto industry, who are Enroning all over the place."

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