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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

Op-Ed Page (Boston Globe)

October 18, 1999

I've never thought much of single-issue voters. Now I'm on the verge of becoming one.

The threatening implosion of Vice President Al Gore's campaign moves me to remember why I like him as a politician. He was one of the first national figures to put concern about the global environmental crisis at the heart of his agenda.

These days I think of Gore as a worried front-runner trying hard to bask in the glow of Clinton administration prosperity, not really knowing what to do about the muck. But that's a losing image.

To rekindle his campaign, Gore must cast himself as an unapologetic ecologist, and he can make a credible claim on that tag. If he doesn't, there really isn't much reason to support him.

This course has costs and benefits, and his fortunes could ride on how artfully he makes the case for Mother Nature. And the case is strong.

The environment as an issue could drive a wedge into either major party. The issue has the potential to divide fat-cat Republicans from conservatives who really care about conservation. Cast as a moral issue, it has the potential to tap into the same deep parts of us that nurture religious faith.

The danger for Democrats is that industrial workers, a shrinking but still vital leg of the party, might feel their short-term interests threatened by shrill environmentalism.

Any candidate willing to take up the environmental cause shouldn't relinquish those votes without a fight. But instead of taking the appeasement road, candidates should try to convince workers that their long-term interests are best served by a sustainable world economy founded on a healthy natural order.

The time has come for electoral majorities to face our planetary threats, foremost among them global warming and ozone depletion. Sacrifice will have to be part of the agenda for dealing effectively with these problems. Telling voters they can't have every goodie they crave is a third rail that politicians instinctively avoid.

But the alert candidate will see the yearning for meaning and spiritual renewal in this country. Environmentalism is at the core of how humans as a species -- and Americans carry disproportionate weight because of our military might and our consumption habits -- will choose to live on this earth.

We need a politician who recognizes that there are people who don't have enough and seeks to help them but can also convincingly say that part of the problem is that a lot of us have too much.

Thinkers among us will evaluate positions politicians take to puzzle out whether they are compatible with a truly environmental outlook. The candidate's job is to set the direction. So far no one, other than possibly Gore when he was a senator from Tennessee, has captured the impression in the public imagination that the environment is at the top of his or her priorities.

Greens are succeeding in countries with proportional representation, where parties get seats in the legislature based on the percent of the popular vote cast for their slate. The big story the American news media missed in those places is the strangeness of the bedfellows Green parties attract. People from all over the traditional spectrum put other differences aside in favor of principled and vigorous environmentalism.

Things work differently in a two-party system. We require that majorities be cobbled together before the voters go to the polls. It ensures that the great debates take place as close to the grass roots as possible, rather than during coalition-building conferences after the vote. An upstart like the Reform Party may eventually supplant one of today's major parties. But for now, getting 5 or 10 percent of the vote gets very little other than the role of spoiler.

This is the time for a true politician of the 21st century to seize the mantle of unapologetic environmentalist and to fight for the respect and votes that position is due.

Maybe Gore figures he has the environmental votes locked up, so why ruffle feathers until after he gets into the Oval Office. It's the way the political game is played. If that is his strategy, it's a good formula for losing the election, if not the nomination.

He needs to put his ecological cards on the table. He might lose as an out of the closet environmentalist, but he will have fought a good fight. It will have been a smart fight, too, because as the global environmental crisis continues to bite harder his identification with that issue will increase his stature.

During the Clinton administration, the United States slipped in its commitment to internationally negotiated emissions targets to stem global warming and ozone depletion. Gore should vow to reverse that course and own up to the costs that might entail.

Then he should explain why this is necessary, appealing to our yearning for spiritual renewal and not just material prosperity. He should make connections between conservative and conservationist values.

If he moves boldly on the environment, Gore can take almost any expedient position he likes on other issues. We should also be open to other candidates making a concerted play for the environment vote. After all, if Gore won't champion that cause we might as well start shopping around for someone who will. The Earth truly is in the balance.

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All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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