Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, from the sunny decks of an excursion boat touring Boston Harbor, George H.W. Bush, then the Republican candidate for president, launched a fierce attack on Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee. Bush said that Boston’s polluted waters — “the dirtiest harbor” in America — symbolized Dukakis’s failed leadership. He “will say that he will do for America what he’s done for Massachusetts,” Bush declared. “That’s why I fear for the country.” By delaying a major cleanup of the harbor, Bush said, Dukakis had cost taxpayers billions of dollars and allowed the pollution to continue, making “the most expensive public policy mistake in the history of New England.”
Bush’s attack on Dukakis stands out as perhaps the last time a prominent national Republican turned an environmental cause into a weapon against a Democratic opponent. And in that 25-year gap lies a lost path and a giant missed opportunity. Republicans no longer seriously contest the environmental vote; instead, they have run from it. Largely as a result, national environmental policy-making has become one-sided, polarized, and stuck. Republican politicians mostly deny the threat of climate disruption and block legislative solutions, while President Obama tries to go it alone with a shaky patchwork of executive actions. A middle ground on environmental policy remains a mirage.
Bush’s presidency initially promised a different path. Bush’s feelings about the environment ran long and deep. Heading a House Republican task force in 1970, he called the “interrelationship between population growth and natural resources . . . the most critical problem facing the world.” He shared the environmental movement’s goals of improving the nation’s air and water. One of Bush’s signature achievements, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, instituted a cap-and-trade system to cut power plant pollution and reduce acid rain. The New York Times described the law as a “model for updating in the 1990s the other 1970s-era statutes that form the foundation of the nation’s environmental program.”
But then Bush abandoned the Republican environmental resurgence he had begun to build. By the end of his presidency, he was pitting economic growth against environmental regulation. Bush mocked 1992 vice presidential nominee Al Gore as “Ozone Man,” declaring that Gore was “so far out in the environmental extreme we’ll be up to our necks in owls and outta work for every American.”
What explains the switch? Despite significant environmental gains during his presidency, Bush’s leadership faltered as the issues grew more complex, abstract, and international. The raw sewage pouring into Boston Harbor had created a local constituency for change and a clear solution. By contrast, largely invisible and computer-modeled threats like climate change affected everyone, but far in the future. Negotiating international agreements to limit greenhouse gas emissions thus provoked fierce ideological debates over scientific knowledge, economic regulation, and national sovereignty.
Facing a conservative primary challenge and an economic downturn, Bush tacked to the right in the 1992 campaign, refusing to sign the international Convention on Biodiversity and weakening a global agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. “After those decisions,” EPA Administrator William Reilly later recalled, “it became impossible to be taken seriously when representing the environmental commitments of the Bush administration.”
Environmentalists exacerbated the Republican shift away from environmental issues by allying forcefully with the Democratic Party. Environmental groups gave Bush little credit for his accomplishments. When they denounced Bush for his failings, and allowed Democrats to claim the environmental mantle exclusively for themselves, environmentalists helped to drive both parties to the extremes. The Democrats veered toward warning of environmental apocalypse, while Republicans went to the other pole, denying the threat of environmental problems.
In Bush’s forgotten bid for environmental superiority lies a missed opportunity. The country needs constructive debate that leads to innovative approaches to environmental problems. At the time, Bush’s means, if not his ends, differed from those of many environmental advocates: Bush touted market solutions, private initiative, and informal negotiation strategies instead of costly litigation. Although Bush’s favorite strategies were often derided then, the environmental movement has increasingly embraced his approach over the past two decades. Cap-and-trade provided the centerpiece for Obama’s initial climate initiative in his first term. Green business is all the rage, and market strategies for solving environmental problems are widely accepted. Nowadays, young environmentalists are as likely to go into business as they are to pursue careers in government or advocacy.
The one place where Bush’s proposed market solutions failed to thrive was in politics. With both sides talking to themselves, the generative power of competition and debate has withered. So perhaps the first signs of new life will come when a prominent national Republican next goes after a Democrat for being weak on the environment.
Paul Sabin, who teaches American history at Yale University, is author of “The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future,’’ which will be published on Sept. 3.