Environment and the 2000 election

Published October 1, 2000

Ultimately, the importance of environment issues to the 2000 election may not be determined by “environmentalists” or more moderate conservationists—or even Democrats or Republicans. Trade unions, if history and the predictions of political scientists and pundits are any indication, will drive the key decisions on those issues.

Looking back to last year’s riots in Seattle and Washington DC, one would have to conclude the environment is going to play a major role in this year’s Presidential race. But the odd new alliance in the debate—environmentalists and unions—raises considerable questions about what that role will be.

Both groups have traditionally supported the Democratic Party, but both adamantly oppose the administration’s trade policy—hence the two riots. The two groups do not agree, however, on why they oppose current trade policy.

The environmentalists oppose free trade because, they say, it encourages more manufacturing in countries without strict environmental laws and regulations, thus creating more pollution. They want trade treaties to include provisions for strict international environmental sanctions, or no free trade at all.

The primary free-trade concern of unions, of course, is the potential loss of American jobs.

In the end, notes Dr. Bonner Cohen of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, the two groups may speak with one voice on trade and the environment, but their members may behave very differently when they enter the voting booth.

Environmental split should heal

Ironically, Vice President Al Gore–the political hero of environmental activists who form his base of support–has recently come under severe criticism from them. Their chief complaint has been that Gore has not sufficiently delivered on his commitment to advance their agenda.

“Many of our members support Ralph Nader,” reported Environmentalists against Gore in a July 21 press release, “and others believe that even having George W. Bush in the White House, under the eye of an energized environmental community, will lead to better protection for nature and wildlife than we can expect from Al Gore.”

“From Alaska to the Everglades, New Jersey to California, the Vice President talks about being an environmentalist,” said David Brower, a Sierra Club and Earth Island member who is a co-founder of Environmentalists against Gore, “but he’s sold out American citizens, workers, taxpayers, and the environment more times than we can count.

“He sides with clear-cutting timber barons, big sugar, big oil, and real estate speculators over forests and watersheds, parks and wildlife,” Brower added. “And we lose those fights because when Al Gore sells out, national environmental groups come to his aid, claiming the problem lies somewhere else, with Congress or federal agencies. But we all know the buck stops at the White House.”

Brower is correct to note the leaders of the major environmental groups have not criticized Gore; many of those organizations, including the Sierra Club, have officially endorsed the Vice President. They have supported Gore throughout the bulk of his political career and see him as the candidate who most supports their agenda and has a chance of winning the election. While Ralph Nader would be an ideological fit for many in the environmental movement, third-party candidates have rarely fared well in this country. Nader’s standing in the polls, at about 7 percent as this article is written, would seem to indicate his chances of success are no better.

Labor may bolt

Labor’s dispute with Gore seems more likely to lead significant numbers of rank- and-file members to vote against him in November. Union sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said this swing will be difficult to poll: When called, union members are likely to name the Democrat candidate as their choice, regardless of how they actually intend to vote.

Polls show that heavily union districts have occasionally gone to the Republican candidate. In fact, the Teamsters Union has a long history of endorsing Republican Presidential candidates, including Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush’s father. Accordingly, key Republicans, including Cogrressman Tom M. Davis III of Virginia, chairman of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, hosted a party at the GOP convention for Teamsters President James P. Hoffa Jr. Both Teamster and Republican attendees said the discussions at the event were very positive, with Hoffa complimenting a number of Republican congressmen for their assistance on issues important to his members.

“We’re talking about the things we have in common,” Davis told the Washington Times when asked about his discussions with Hoffa. “What he’s signaled here is a willingness to look across party lines.”

Common ground among labor and Republicans seems to exist on both trade and environment issues. The Teamsters and many Republicans oppose efforts to establish Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China. That bill is a cornerstone of the Clinton-Gore foreign policy; Bush has also supported it.

On the environment front, a number of new regulations due to take effect over the next few years are expected to cause even greater increases in fuel costs than those the country experienced this past summer. Fuel price hikes have a direct and decidedly negative impact on the truckers who make up the vast majority of Teamster members.

The United Auto Workers Union has endorsed Gore, but waited until moments before the Democratic Party convention to do so. They, too, disagree with the Democrats over both trade and environment policy. The election’s battleground states—Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—boast the highest Teamster and UAW membership.

For years, UAW members have opposed environmentalists’ assaults on the automobile. In his book, Earth in the Balance, Al Gore moved to the forefront of that assault. He has called the internal combustion engine “the single greatest threat to the planet”; he hand-picked EPA Administrator Carol Browner, whose recent attempts to restrict automobile use will only add to the UAW’s concerns.

On July 28, for example, EPA announced it had signed an agreement that will test the notion of “usage-based” auto insurance for environmental benefits. Under the agreement, reached between Progressive Insurance in Mayfield Village, Ohio and EPA, those who drive more would have to pay higher insurance premiums than those who drive less. The objectives of the agreement, according to EPA, are “pollution reduction, discouragement of urban sprawl, protection of wetlands, wildlife habitats, and lakes and streams.”

EPA has also issued a series of ever-tighter regulations on gasoline and diesel fuel that will make truck and automobile use more costly over the next 10 years.

In addition to the Teamsters and UAW workers, the United Mine Workers have expressed concern about increased restrictions on mining, drilling, and the use of fossil fuels. Their opposition to these restrictions is thought by Lexington Institute’s Cohen to be a significant factor in Bush’s current lead in traditionally Democratic West Virginia.

While it is difficult to predict which union votes will split away to Bush and which to Nader, there is little doubt that they will come from a key element of the Democrat base.

Lieberman choice could widen rift

The selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman as Gore’s running mate could well add to the Vice President’s support among extreme environmentalists. Lieberman boasts a 100 percent approval rating by the left-environmentalist League of Conservation Voters.

Labor’s disenchantment with the Gore candidacy, however, is likely to be made worse by the pick. Lieberman has been a strong supporter of the Kyoto global warming protocol–to which labor has been adamantly opposed, led by such influential Democrats as Congressman John Dingell of Michigan.

Lieberman is also on record supporting Gore’s assault on the automobile. “We can continue to make cars cleaner,” Lieberman has noted, “but if we continue to drive more miles, the air is not going to get any cleaner.” That perspective is unlikely to win the Gore-Lieberman ticket friends among those who build—or drive—cars.