During the '96 presidential campaign, Democrats and Republicans alike were talking greener than they could likely deliver after winning office.
In previous election years, Republicans used race as a "wedge" issue, separating middle class voters from the other party. This time, Democrats are using environmental protection in the same way. For example, President Clinton's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention used the word "environmental" at least seven times. Moreover, he said, "We should make it a crime even to attempt to pollute."
For their part, Republicans, who only a year ago, were trying to tear out large chunks of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's budget, eased up on claims that excessive environmental regulation was hurting the economy. Republican-nominee Bob Dole, who emphasized tax cuts in his campaign, nevertheless included a proposal for regulatory reform in his economic plan. Indeed, his literature claimed that he was "the only presidential candidate to have voted for ... every major piece of environmental protection legislation in the past 25 years."
Although Democrats have tended to stress environmental protection and Republicans to defuse the issue, both parties can be counted on to continue towards more flexible environmental regulation that is less meddlesome for business and industry.
Despite this consensus on relaxed environment regulation, the parties sharply disagree on how loose it should be. For example, Republicans have favored a bill to compensate businesses and landowners whose property loses value as a result of environmental controls. Most Democrats won't go along with such a program. As for legislative efforts to impose a rigorous, cost-benefit analysis on proposed regulations, Republicans rally in support and Democrats demur.
Polls overwhelmingly show that voters see Democrats as more concerned about the environment than Republicans. Throughout the campaign, Clinton received higher ratings on the environment than on such issues as abortion, Medicare, education and unemployment.
Ironically, the president's popularity on environmental issues markedly clashed with his lackluster record. During 1993 and 1994, his "legislative tactics and inconsistency doomed many of his legislative proposals" on the environment, according to a League of Conservation Voters pamphlet circulated during the campaign. Without much push from the White House, a then-Democratic Congress passed only one major piece of environmental legislation, which created parkland in the California desert.
"They didn't do anything wrong," said a House Republican who supports environmental initiatives. "They just didn't do anything right, either."
Only when the Republicans took over Congress did the administration concentrate more on the environment, attempting to block various Republican proposals. Interestingly, then-Senator Dole's plan to force all new regulations to pass a strict cost-benefit test did not clash with Clinton's policies; it was simply more radical.
Aware that voters don't trust them on the environment, Republicans attempted to soften their image through better visibility - more news conferences, public gatherings and local projects.
Surprising to some, the two major parties have managed to agree on a few issues. Last summer, Clinton signed a modification to the Safe Drinking Water Act, relaxing the requirements on small communities who operate drinking water systems. He also effectively killed the Delaney Clause when he signed a pesticide bill into law. The clause, which dates back to 1958, created a flat prohibition against any amount of potential carcinogens in processed foods. Most scientists, however, believe the restriction is no longer justified.
After election day, talks between party leaders will resume on the Superfund program. Democrats oppose Republican proposals to let big polluters off the hook on cleanup costs. Meanwhile, the GOP will resist efforts to pay for cleanup by hiking taxes on industry.
Two years ago, the Clinton administration offered a plan to reduce polluters' cleanup liability. Despite support from many industries, congressional Republicans opposed the plan, and it eventually stalled. The plan would have imposed a new tax on insurers to help pay hazardous waste cleanup costs.
If election day leaves Clinton in the White House and Republicans in control of Congress, then the GOP and their business allies may succeed in fending off new Superfund taxes. As a compromise, both sides may decide to find the money in the surplus within the current Superfund trust fund.