SYNOPSIS: In the Bush administration, good policy = anything that hurts the tree-huggers
On Wednesday the Senate voted down a proposal by John Kerry and John McCain to raise mileage standards on automobiles. The outcome came as no surprise, but what does it mean?
Was it yet another victory for special interests at the expense of the national interest?
No, it was much worse than that.
What prevailed Wednesday was an alliance between conservatives who hate the very idea of conservation, on one side, and union leaders trying to demonstrate their influence by making politicians jump. It's the same alliance that, last summer, led the House to support drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) by a surprisingly large margin.
About ANWR: The Times recently had an eye-opening article confirming something I had been hearing myself, that oil companies are not behind the push for drilling there — indeed, they are notably unexcited by the prospect. Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey suggest why: Arctic oil is so expensive to get at that it's barely worth extracting at current market prices. For energy companies it's the rest of the Bush energy plan, which would give them about $35 billion in tax breaks and subsidies, that really matters.
But then why are the Bush administration and its allies so vehement about ANWR? Pay no attention to rhetoric about national security; the Kerry-McCain proposal would save about three times as much oil per year as ANWR would deliver even in its brief period of peak production.
The real reason conservatives want to drill in ANWR is the same reason they want to keep snowmobiles roaring through Yellowstone: sheer symbolism. Forcing rangers to wear respirators won't make much difference to snowmobile sales — but it makes the tree-huggers furious, and that's what's appealing about it. The same is true about Arctic drilling; as one very moderate environmentalist told me, the reason the Bush administration pursues high-profile anti-environmental policies is not that they please special interests but that they are "red meat for the right." (The real special-interest payoffs come via less showy policies, like the way the administration is undermining enforcement of the Clean Air Act.)
And what about the Teamsters union, which threw its support behind the Bush plan? It claimed to be motivated by the 700,000 jobs ANWR drilling would supposedly create. One suspects that the union's leadership knows that this figure is at least 10 times too high. But the union's members don't know that; so by making common cause with the anti-environmental right the leaders can seem to be bringing home the bacon.
The debate over fuel efficiency played out according to the same script. Conservative opponents of higher mileage standards followed closely the guidelines laid down by Ed Gillespie, the top Republican operative turned Enron lobbyist, in a memo last April. He proposed selling the administration's drill-and-burn energy plan by painting conservationists as "eat your peas" types, who want to take away our creature comforts. Sure enough, opponents portrayed a modest proposal, which would have set a 36-mile-per-gallon standard 13 years from now, as an immediate threat to the American way of life. Trent Lott displayed a photo of a two-seat, 70-mile-per-gallon compact and declared, "I don't want every American to have to drive this car."
And senators who are indifferent to the air pollution that kills thousands of Americans each year got all weepy at the prospect — rejected by serious analysts — that making cars more efficient would lead to more traffic fatalities.
The surprise, though, is that this dishonest anti-conservationism got crucial support from the United Auto Workers. There's no good reason to think that higher efficiency standards would actually cost any automobile worker jobs; certainly fighting a modest mileage increase phased over 15 years shouldn't be a priority for the union's members. But as with the Teamsters and ANWR drilling, fighting conservation gave the union's leadership an opportunity to look powerful; the appearance, not the reality, was what mattered.
You may find it hard to believe that such crucial decisions are driven by such petty concerns, that an alliance between showboating union leaders and "drive 100 and freeze a Yankee" conservatives could do so much damage to our nation's future. But if that's what you think, you do not know with how little wisdom the world is governed.
Originally published in The New York Times, 3.12.02