It's the grizzlies and the birds, stupid


CHICAGO, Ill. - "We saved Yellowstone from mining," President Clinton intoned in his acceptance speech, which was characteristically long, detailed and completely devoid of eloquence.

Clinton did not say, "Bob Dole wouldn't have done that"; he didn't have to. Dole had done it for him in his own acceptance speech, which was more eloquent, almost as long, but never mentioned nature or conservation.

In this, there is no mystery. The Republicans have two hopes when it comes to the environment, one aimed at the country in general, the other at the West in particular, and both hopes require the same tactic - silence.

The less a subject is discussed, the more likely it is to be forgotten, and the fondest Republican desire is that the average voter forget about air and water pollution, preserving endangered species and cleaning up toxic wastes. The Republicans know that most people disagree with them on these issues, and can only hope that, as in the past, few people will switch their votes over them.

But the Republicans also think their environmental policies will win them votes from the resource-extracting communities of the West and to a lesser extent from the farmers of the Midwest. Here again, though, Dole doesn't have to say anything. He already said it, when no one but his target audience was paying attention.

In the past two years, Dole and his wife have attended meetings of wise-use organizations. It was at the urging of these groups that Dole sponsored the "takings" legislation in the Senate. These are single-issue voters focused on their cause, and they know Dole supports them, so they're supporting him.

What seems a mystery, though, is why the Democrats don't make a bigger issue of the environment in general, and of Western natural resources issues in particular. As is true with most mysteries, there is an explanation. To be precise, there are three explanations.

First, the Democrats also want the votes of some of those miners, loggers, ranchers and developers, and don't want to get them riled up. This is pretty stupid politics. Not because no Western resource producers will vote Democratic; some will, but only those who don't share the views of their angrier colleagues. Clinton would be better advised to be forthright, write off the Western old guard, and inspire those who agree with him, which is probably a majority in most Western states.

The second reason is that, to quote (but not identify) a Democratic political consultant, issues such as national parks, wilderness, clear-cutting and habitat protection "are not on the radar screen" of the average voter. Since they don't affect the pocketbook, the consultant said, they won't have much political impact.

This is also pretty stupid politics. With today's technology, an issue can easily be vaulted onto the proverbial radar screen, and this one has the potential for eating into the Republican-leaning suburban electorate. But political consultants think they know everything. (Some of them, we now know, also think they can get away with anything.)

The third explanation is more interesting and more complicated, and requires recognition of the difference between environmental disputes in the West and those elsewhere.

Most environmental policy is inspired by science and economics. Dirty water and dirty air are bad for everyone's health, and while they can benefit a specific business for a while, they are also bad for long-term prosperity. But let's be honest. The impulse for preserving nature in the West transcends science, economics, even rationality itself. It wells up from those corners of the mind which defy analysis.

Do we really need grizzly bears? OK, the extinction of any species would affect its ecosystem, but the grizzly is on top of the food chain, so the impact would probably be small, barely noticeable except to the biologist. Some other species might fill that niche, just as the coyote tried to where the wolf was exterminated.

This doesn't mean wolf reintroduction was a mistake. It was a great idea, scientifically, economically, ecologically. And even legally, since the law requires government scientists to try to revive all endangered species, and it is nice to see our public servants obey the law.

But wolf reintroduction was also a great idea simply because it's neat to have the wolves back, just as it's neat to have grizzlies, bull trout, forests which have never been logged, rivers which have never been dammed, and wild places where no one ever goes. This is not rational, but it certainly is aesthetic, and it underlies much of Western environmentalism.

So how does this help explain why the Democratic presidential campaign won't make as much of the issue as it should?

Because Bill Clinton has the aesthetic sensibilities of a frog.

He's very, very smart, this president, enlightened and extraordinarily articulate. But there's a reason his speeches are never eloquent. He really is a policy wonk. Clinton's idea of relaxation is one of those dreadful "Renaissance weekends' in South Carolina, where earnest people do role-playing exercises and talk about themselves. The president is something of a New Ager, and New Age aesthetics may be one of those internal contradictions, like military intelligence. If you doubt that, try listening to the music.

In fairness to Clinton, he can hardly be expected to understand the drive behind Western environmentalism if the Western environmentalists are too timid to discuss it, except for the few who do so in lugubrious, sanctimonious prose.

A disinclination to associate oneself with that ultra-cute nature writing is no doubt one reason so many Western conservationists are cautious about openly stating the aesthetic foundation for their views. But probably the bigger reason is political calculation, based on the assumption that the typical American - the waitresses, truck drivers and computer salesmen - would be confused if not repelled.

Folks may be selling the typical American short. This is a nation of nature lovers. Gardening is America's biggest hobby, and on any Sunday afternoon in October more people are walking through the woods than are watching all the National Football League games combined.

Who knows? Maybe honesty from the Democrats could be the best policy. Those waitresses, truck drivers and computer salesmen may have more poetry in their souls than one thinks.

But poetry from Bill Clinton? Now you're asking too much.

Jon Margolis covers national politics for High Country News.