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
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 -
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
The third explanation is more
interesting and more complicated, and requires recognition of the
difference between environmental disputes in the West and those
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
from Bill Clinton? Now you're asking too much.
Margolis covers national politics for High Country