Why Babbitt's advice to Obama doesn't quite hit the mark


It was constructed as some advice for President Obama, a call to action for the executive branch, “the best, and likely only hope for meaningful progress” on the environment. But former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s speech to the National Press Club on June 8 seemed to serve a higher purpose: To educate the press and the public about the legacy of conservation in this country, and to recall how a gang of radically right-wing members of Congress sought to dismantle that legacy in a series of under-the-radar attacks.

“The intent is to chip away,” Babbitt said, “a blow at a time, at the edifice of environmental laws and regulations, avoiding a frontal assault that would call attention to the overall objective.”

It’s by now an old, familiar dance, as old and familiar to Babbitt as it is to anybody paying attention. Western members of Congress posture to eliminate wilderness protection laws, loosen up restrictions on mining and drilling or make more land available for grazing, forcing presidents and their delegates to back away from their lofty conservationist goals or weather a backlash that could blow them out of office. And when they don’t win, they slap new anti-environmental laws as “riders” on important legislation – appropriations bills, budget compromises – and dare the President to veto them.

But Babbitt's contention to Obama -- that President Bill Clinton held fast to environmental principles with great electoral success – is a misleading bit of revisionism that deserves some analysis.

Babbitt admits that he and Clinton succumbed to the rider trick in 1995, when a shrill Republican House majority, “in thrall to then House Speaker Gingrich,” attached a rider to an appropriations bill allowing “salvage logging” in national forests. Clinton didn’t veto, Babbitt says, and regretted it later.

“It was a big mistake,” Babbitt says, “that set off a prolonged and destructive episode in the history of our National Forests.” In its aftermath, “President Clinton vowed to veto any additional anti-environmental riders,” Babbitt claims, adding that “Congress, aware that when the President commands the high ground, he will carry public opinion, backed off.”

But is that really true? Can a U.S. President in the 21st Century stake out a righteous position on the environment and move the public to follow? Maybe it worked for Teddy Roosevelt, who used his own 1906 Antiquities Act – a law that allows the executive branch to declare national monuments without Congressional approval -- to protect 800,000 acres in the Grand Canyon. But if we’re using Clinton as an example, probably not.

Clinton was exactly where Obama is now when he let that logging rider get through – in the precarious third year of his first term. He didn’t all of a sudden start vetoing everything with an anti-environmental rider attached right then and there; in fact, he didn’t explicitly pledge to veto more anti-environmental riders until close to the end of his tenure in 1999, and then only after environmental groups had ridden herd on him for years to do so. Many sops to ranchers and carmakers were tacked on to the 1998 budget bill, including a law exempting certain grazing permit renewals from environmental review.

And Clinton’s own use of the Antiquities Act, the creation of a 1.7 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, set off a backlash that reverberates to this day.

That’s not an argument to release the pressure on the Obama administration to do better on the environment, and it’s certainly healthy to shine a light on the legislative machinations of this machination-happy Congress. A lot of post-midterm political capital was spent or salvaged with those anti-environmental riders in the March budget compromise: House Republicans slipped in language nullifying Interior Secretary Salazar’s “Wild Lands” initiative, his move to protect wilderness study areas announced at the start of the year; Montana Senator Jon Tester delisted the gray wolf with a rider, a move that might or might not help him fend off a challenge next year from Rep. Denny Rehberg, a decidedly anti-environment Montana Republican.

But 2011 is a rotten time to hold any president to moral purity on the environment. Elections are won and lost on people’s pocketbooks, and from that perspective, Obama faces a much grimmer fight than Clinton ever did. In June 1995, the unemployment rate was at 5.5 percent, the country had fully recovered from the 1991 recession, and Clinton got the credit for it. If Clinton couldn’t completely fend off the anti-environment fringe during one of the strongest bull markets in history, how can Babbitt expect Obama to do that now, with unemployment at 9.1 percent and economic recovery uncertain?

My guess is that he doesn’t. Instead, he’s staking out a position of environmental progressivism that makes Obama look cooperative and moderate by comparison. The reality, though, is that in most of the country, and most certainly in the West, many people have come to the conclusion that environmental laws hurt their local economies. In some cases that’s actually true; in others, it’s overblown. But public opinion will not be swayed by any presidential moral high ground until the economy improves.

So Obama has a choice: Back down on wilderness protection now, or usher in President Romney  -- or Bachmann or Pawlenty -- in 2012. In the meantime, environmentalists like Babbitt can carry on their battle for the wilderness – on the front lines of public opinion.

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor at HCN. She writes from California.

Image of Bruce Babbitt courtesy Flickr user The Aspen Institute.

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