No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public,"
professional curmudgeon H. L. Mencken once said. Maybe so, but a lot of
politicians lost their jobs last November by underestimating the public's
intelligence. And, if there were any justice, a lot of media pundits would have
been canned for the same reason.
Most prominent among the November losers was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich,
who mistakenly assumed that because Americans are cynical about politics they
don't expect their government to do anything for them. Newt oversaw a campaign
that tried to hide his party's agenda-including its stubborn
anti-environmentalism-behind Monica Lewinsky's blue dress, confident that with 30
or 40 new right-wing votes he would no longer have to worry about the principled
dissents on environmental matters posed by moderate Republicans like Sherwood
Boehlert (N.Y.) and Christopher Shays (Conn.).
But despite the Beltway insistence on reducing issues to one-liners and politics
to tabloid entertainment, the American people showed themselves to be a lot
smarter than the nation's political elite assumes. People want a government that
works, that actually does something to improve the air their children breathe,
the water they drink, and the land they will some day inherit. So when
congressional candidates like Mark Udall in Colorado, Jay Inslee in Washington,
and Dennis Moore in Kansas echoed that message-a message buttressed by two years
of public education by the Sierra Club-people turned out to vote them into
Political job-seekers who underestimated voters' intelligence, on the other hand,
were shown the door. Republican senatorial candidate Matt Fong knew California
voters value their wild rivers but bet that they couldn't distinguish between
pretty pictures and a solid record. So he sat with his family for a photo-op on
the American River-one fork of which he wanted to destroy with an unnecessary new
dam. He even had the nerve to claim that his opponent, incumbent Senator Barbara
Boxer, was "playing politics with the environment." Boxer, an environmental
champion whose seat was considered endangered only weeks before the election, won
by a 10 percent margin.
Next door, challenger John Ensign (R) assured Nevada voters that, like Senator
Harry Reid, he too was opposed to a national nuclear-dump site at Yucca Mountain.
Ensign must have thought Nevadans were not smart enough to notice his huge
political debt to the Senate's biggest Yucca Mountain boosters, Majority Leader
Trent Lott and Idaho's Larry Craig, whom he had invited to raise funds for him.
The Sierra Club's Toiyabe Chapter made sure Nevadans heard about that as well as
Reid's hard work in opposing the dump site. Reid won.
In North Carolina, Senator Lauch Faircloth (R) counted on voters suffering
short-term memory loss. After marginally improving his abysmal voting record in
the last year of his six-year term, Faircloth recast himself as a champion of air
and water. The Sierra Club ran television ads pointing out Faircloth's complicity
in the massive water pollution caused by the huge hog-feeding operations in which
he'd invested $19 million. Voters again exercised their intelligence by replacing
Faircloth with a new senator, John Edwards.
Faced with a similar predicament in Wisconsin, Republican senatorial candidate
Mark Neumann tried to stupefy the voters with a lavishly funded campaign. As a
congressman, Neumann had done his best to hand Wisconsin's wetlands over to
developers. He figured he could make voters forget about that by raising enough
money from special interests, who were already upset about incumbent Democratic
Senator Russ Feingold's heroic efforts on behalf of campaign reform. It didn't
work. Sierra Club television ads linked Wisconsin's devastating floods to the
wetlands destruction advocated by Neumann-and the voters sent Feingold back for
On election day, the national media finally realized that voters were talking
about more than Monica. People were worried, it turned out, about the economy,
social security, health care-and sprawl, clean water, and nuclear waste.
Incredibly, however, the drubbing at the polls in November failed to register
with Washington. Despite the unambiguous message from the voters, the lame-duck
House impeached a president at the peak of his popularity, and the Senate forged
ahead with a trial.
The question as of this writing is whether any legislation, environmental or
otherwise, is going to be considered in 1999. The midterm election proved that
the public was interested in issues and legislation, yet many in Congress don't
seem to care. Nor do they fear any consequences at the polls in the future. "The
attention span of Americans is 'Which movie is coming out next month?' " former
Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson told The New York Times. Cashiered House Speaker
Gingrich advised GOP office holders to keep a low profile for the next two years.
A "message outreach team," Republican National Committee Chair Jim Nicholson
promised, would devise an agenda in time for the elections in the year 2000.
In its fixation on the president, Washington created a political vacuum. As
lamentable as this may be, it presents an unprecedented opportunity for the
Sierra Club. A country starved for positive politics is ready to respond to our
call for more livable cities, clean water, an end to commercial logging of
national forests, the protection of wild places, and a better planet for our
children. As for those who insult the intelligence of the American public, they
will learn the cost of doing so come next election.