WASHINGTON — Democrats say that a series of environmental decisions by President Bush has provided the rallying point that has eluded them since the inauguration, sparking optimism that it will energize the Democratic base and create a new party fund-raising platform.
In the last nine days, Bush renounced a campaign promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by power plants, rescinded a strict new standard for arsenic levels in drinking water, suspended new cleanup requirements for mining companies and threatened to challenge a logging ban on nearly 60 million acres of national forest.
Having searched for weeks to find a way to counter Bush's successful offensive on tax cuts, education and other domestic issues, Democratic lawmakers and party activists say the president's decisions on the environment have provided them with an opening.
"We believe that George W. Bush has declared war on the environment," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said at a news conference on Capitol Hill this week. "But we are here today to tell him that we will fight him in that war--regulation by regulation, legislation by legislation, standard by standard."
Said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster: "I think Bush is in the process of creating a political disaster for himself."
Already Democrats and major environmental groups have begun gearing up. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, has launched an inquiry into Bush's decision-making on arsenic, mining and logging. The Natural Resources Defense Council will run television ads in Washington, D.C., and other markets this weekend to criticize Bush's proposal for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The Sierra Club is planning a radio and newspaper ad campaign attacking Bush's stands on arsenic in water and carbon dioxide emissions, while the Audubon Society has run TV ads on Alaska drilling and will hold 30 membership parties throughout the country to drum up resistance to Bush's policies.
Administration officials and GOP strategists concede the Democrats may enjoy a short-term benefit. But they said there will be long-term political advantages for the president if he successfully portrays his policies as an attempt to strike a balance between the desire to protect the environment and the need to promote economic growth.
"This is not an anti-environmental administration," Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman said in an interview. "It's an administration that believes it is time to get away from the attitude that it has to be either a healthy environment or a healthy economy. We have to have both things, and that's the balance that we're going to be striking."
House Republicans, looking to the 2002 elections, in which control of Congress will be up for grabs, said that, while many of Bush's actions are unpopular with Democrats and environmentalists, the moves are defensible given the concerns about a slowing economy and the need to expand domestic energy production.
"The risk is the Democrats will demagogue this to suburban voters," said Glenn Bolger, a Republican pollster with close ties to the House GOP leadership. "The upside is that it is showing some of the Republican base areas, in the Rocky Mountains and elsewhere, that President Bush feels their pain."
Republican strategists who are in frequent contact with the White House said the president's decisions are unlikely to hurt Bush in the long run. They said the president made the calculation that his education and tax cut plans are more important to suburban independents--a key bloc of voters in recent elections--than the environment. On top of that, they said, Bush needs the support of business to win passage of the tax cut, his legislative priority, and noted that business has applauded his decisions on the environment.
Bush's decisions have also played to the Republican base. Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation, said 70 conservatives at a luncheon meeting this week broke into applause for the president's decision to abandon his pledge to seek limits on carbon dioxide emissions.
"There's a risk with some of the swing voters, but unless something happens where lots of people turn up dead before the election, these issues are not going to resonate with lots of voters," Weyrich said.
However, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), a moderate closely allied with environmental groups, cautioned that Bush was "taking a risk" by issuing so many controversial decisions on the environment so early in his administration.
"There's no question in my mind the overwhelming majority of Americans families want to have the environment dealt with in a responsible way," Boehlert said. "The party or candidates who do not propose dealing with it in a responsible way can be in jeopardy next year."