Why Al Gore soft-pedaled the environment in 2000

March 20, 2007

Al Gore is holding audiences around the nation spellbound with his message on global warming and its consequences: a sea-level rise, acidic oceans, drought and massive economic dislocations.

Carbon-dioxide emissions are raising temperatures around the world.

If we listen to the scientists and understand the facts, there is only one conclusion: We have to turn the global thermostat down.

That is the simple logic of An Inconvenient Truth, Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary that he is presenting to audiences around the nation, as he has in Florida, as “the man who was the next president of the United States.”

But in his 2000 presidential campaign, the environment was invisible in candidate Gore’s campaign.

Key advisers and Gore himself believed that the issue that virtually defined his worldview had to be kept from sight in order to become president.

One can imagine that there were two aspects at work: first, that environmentalists were already on his side. His opposition was hammering persuadable voters (“Ozone Al,” remember that?) with doubts that global warming had any grounding in fact.

The second aspect of his thinking, though, is rarely discussed: Gore’s key campaign finance advisers were concerned that his pro-environmental message could alienate big Democratic donors just when final money was needed for television spots.

In 2000, Gore needed money to be competitive. His Florida campaign advisers told him to stay away from controversies like the Homestead Air Force Base conversion in South Miami-Dade because he would alienate Hispanic voters — which actually wasn’t the case.

What Gore’s advisers were really saying was this: You can’t afford to alienate big Florida donors who are Democrats and for whom environmental issues are a drag on construction and development.

Although we like to talk about the environment and the economy as mutually compatible, the reality is that economic interests with the most to gain from the outcome of money-intensive elections are not particularly friendly to the environment. Just look at Florida’s wasted suburban landscape, de-watered wetlands, polluted waterways, and the endless rounds of assurances that everything is being done, that can be done, to make a better tomorrow.

In his campaign-free life today, Gore represents the epitome of ease and conviction borne of clear logic related to global warming. In his campaign life of yesterday, Gore couldn’t find his way to his own constituents.

Gore ends his speeches with encouragement: We can solve the problems of global warming because “political will is a renewable resource.” He is right, except in the case communicating that will requires a billion dollars in a presidential campaign.

In relying on vast campaign contributions, both political parties are engaged in “mutually assured destruction,” the term once used to describe nuclear arsenals aimed by the Soviet Union and the United States at each other.

Most Americans are so tired, they can’t wait for anyone to be the next president. But the hurry-up-and-wait scenario we face in Super Tuesday primaries next February obscures the truly revolting: that the 2008 presidential election is likely to cost at least $1 billion.

Think of what a billion dollars of political contributions buys the United States.

I think about it because presidential candidates have been scouring the Florida landscape for months. By next Feb. 5, Democratic voters in key primary-election states may decide their candidate to be next president. Republicans will be voting, too, but apportionment of delegates has not yet been decided.

The lines have been drawn. Core supporters enlisted or re-enlisted.

Their goal: for dependable donors to give the maximum contributions today. Once that glass is full, then they’ll be expected to cough up additional donations to political parties or political action committees, including unlimited donations to their hybrids.

This is modern American politics: the wealth of a nation funneled into campaign machinery whose narrow spout emits television spots that most people with TiVos will TiVo right by.

The closer one looks, the harsher the view: A vast machinery of skilled and even brilliant practitioners, consultants and vote counters is applied to the illogic.

Who says there is no inflation?

For the privilege of a big-bucks donation to a candidate, you might get a photo taken or an “exclusive” briefing by the candidate and be amazed by polish applied to nuance so not a hair strays off-course.

Case in point: Al Gore.

Americans and the world deserve much better. And we can do better. It’s time to de-couple the election of the president from a billion-dollar horse race.

Advertisements