Candidates change, but rhetoric on energy and environment hasn't

TAMPA, Fla. -- President Nixon created U.S. EPA in 1970. The first official celebration of Earth Day, and with it the birth of the modern environmental movement, came a year later. The OPEC embargo, which spawned the first U.S. energy crisis, was just a couple of years off.

But when Nixon stood at the podium of the Miami Beach Convention Center on Aug. 23, 1972, to accept the Republican nomination for a second term, he said not a word about energy or the environment. Speaking in the same auditorium a month earlier to accept the Democratic presidential nomination, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern mentioned those issues only in passing.

Speaking at the ungodly hour of 2:30 a.m., thanks to endless, symbolic haggling on the convention floor over the party's vice presidential nomination, McGovern focused much of his speech on ending the Vietnam War. But he saw connections in many conflicts.

"If we someday choke on the pollution of our own air, there will be little consolation in leaving behind a dying continent ringed with steel," McGovern said in a soliloquy on how "national security" should refer to more than just military might. Later, talking about the need for tax fairness, he said, "There is a depletion allowance for oil wells, but no depletion for the farmer who feeds us, or the worker who serves us all."

Energy issues should get a considerably bigger airing Thursday, when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney formally accepts the Republican presidential nomination here. Romney has already said he believes the energy industry can be one of the biggest job creators of the near- and long-term future -- if only government gets out of the way. Unveiling his energy blueprint last week in New Mexico, he called for more oil and gas drilling, more coal mining, more development of natural gas technologies like hydraulic fracturing, and a speedier approval process for nuclear power.


President Obama is also likely to address energy and the environment the following week, when he is nominated for a second term at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Obama's task will be a little trickier, as he'll have to convince voters that he's been a good steward of the environment but hasn't hindered the domestic energy industry. He'll be addressing voters who are aware that under his administration, a $535 million government loan to the solar manufacturer Solyndra has gone bad, that a BP well gushed oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 106 days, and that he has so far refused to green-light the full route of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, with its promise of thousands of jobs.

It's apparent that with a sagging economy, with gasoline prices inching up yet again and with a never-ending debate raging on Capitol Hill about regulations, energy and environmental issues are likely to play a role in the outcome of this year's election -- though how pivotal they'll be remains to be seen.

These issues wax and wane from White House election to White House election -- depending on what else is at the top of the voters' priority list and what the candidates themselves choose to emphasize. Some have dedicated significant portions of their convention speeches to powering the nation or protecting the planet -- while others have ignored the topic altogether. And through the years, a lot of the rhetoric has barely changed -- particularly the line about wanting the United States to attain energy independence, something Romney just repeated during his latest energy speech.

"It is achievable," Romney said in New Mexico last week. "This is not some pie in the sky kind of thing."

1976 -- Jimmy Carter vs. Gerald Ford

Jimmy Carter, a former one-term Georgia governor, was a peanut farmer and nuclear engineer who had improbably claimed the Democratic nomination by out-hustling his better-known primary opponents. But though energy -- both the development of an alternative domestic supply and the U.S. thirst for Middle East oil -- would become a significant fight during his single term in the White House, Carter gave it only a passing mention during his convention speech.

"We have an America that has reconciled its economic needs with its desire for an environment that we can pass on with pride to the next generation," he told the crowd at New York's Madison Square Garden on July 15.

Gerald Ford, who inherited the presidency in 1974 after Nixon resigned due to the Watergate scandal, and who had wrestled with the early days of the energy crisis, also devoted just a single line to the issue during his Aug. 19 convention address in Kansas City, Mo.

"I see a new generation that knows what is right and knows itself, a generation determined to preserve its ideals, its environment, our nation and the world," he said.

After narrowly defeating Ford in November, Carter created the Department of Energy in 1977 -- and struggled through another energy crisis, which saw long lines at gas stations and brought him increasing hostility from voters.

1980 -- Ronald Reagan vs. Carter

With unemployment and inflation high, with 52 Americans being held hostage in the U.S. embassy in Iran, and with Carter lurching from crisis to crisis, Ronald Reagan, the former California governor, had a prime opportunity to go on the offensive -- and play the sunny optimist.

"We face a disintegrating economy, a weakened defense and an energy policy based on the sharing of scarcity," Reagan told the GOP delegates gathered at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit on July 17. He went on to call Carter the principal chef of an "indigestible economic stew ... seasoned by an energy crisis. It's an economic crisis that has turned the national stomach."

Later in that same speech, Reagan sounded more than a little like the Republican politicians of today.

"Those who preside over the worst energy shortage in our history tell us to use less, so that we will run out of oil, gasoline and natural gas a little more slowly," he said. "Conservation is desirable, of course, for we must not waste energy. But conservation is not the sole answer to our energy needs. America must get to work producing more energy. The Republican program for solving economic problems is based on growth and productivity.

"Large amounts of oil and natural gas lay beneath our land and off our shores, untouched because the present administration seems to believe the American people would rather see regulation, taxes and controls more than energy. Coal offers great potential. So does nuclear energy produced under rigorous safety standards. It could supply electricity for thousands of industries and millions of jobs and homes. It must not be thwarted by a tiny minority opposed to economic growth which often finds friendly ears in regulatory agencies for its obstructionist campaigns.

"Make no mistake: We will not permit the safety of our people or our environment heritage to be jeopardized, but we are going to reaffirm that the economic prosperity of our people is a fundamental part of our new environment."

Carter also dedicated a significant portion of his Aug. 14 acceptance speech in Madison Square Garden to energy. He defended his calls for sacrifice and conservation and noted that as president, his "true constituency is the future."

"I see a future of economic security -- security that will come from tapping our own great resources of oil and gas, coal and sunlight," he said.

Later, Carter blasted Reagan for living in a "make-believe world" where there are "no hard choices." He then delved deeper into policy.

"In the long run, nothing is more crucial to the future of America than energy; nothing was so disastrously neglected in the past," the president said. "Long after the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the Republicans in the White House had still done nothing to meet the threat to the national security of our nation. Then, as now, their policy was dictated by the big oil companies.

"We Democrats fought hard to rally our nation behind a comprehensive energy policy and a good program, a new foundation for challenging and exciting progress. ... And with our new energy policy now in place, we can discover more, produce more, create more and conserve more energy, and we will use American resources, American technology and millions of American workers to do it with.

"Now, what do the Republicans propose? Basically, their energy program has two parts. The first part is to get rid of almost everything that we've done for the American public in the last three years. They want to reduce or abolish the synthetic fuels program. They want to slash the solar energy incentives, the conservation programs, aid to mass transit, aid to elderly Americans to help pay their fuel bills. They want to eliminate the 55-mile speed limit. And while they are at it, the Republicans would like to gut the Clean Air Act. They never liked it to begin with.

"That's one part of their program; the other part is worse. To replace what we have built, this is what they propose: to destroy the windfall profits tax and to 'unleash' the oil companies and let them solve the energy problem for us. That's their whole program. There is no more. Can this nation accept such an outrageous program?"

"No!" the Democratic faithful in the arena roared.

Less than three months later, even though Reagan on the campaign trail declared that trees cause pollution, Carter lost 44 states.

1984 -- Walter Mondale vs. Reagan

Reagan had presided over a weak economy during his first two years in the White House, and Republicans paid the price during the 1982 midterm elections. But by the time 1984 rolled around, the economic outlook was considerably brighter.

Walter Mondale, who had been Carter's vice president, was a traditional old-line liberal. Although some of Reagan's environmental policies -- and some of the people he had appointed to lead key agencies, like Interior Secretary James Watt and EPA Administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford -- were highly controversial, Mondale gave the issue scant attention during his July 19 convention speech in San Francisco.

"You did not vote to poison the environment," he said, in a litany of complaints about the Reagan record.

When it was his turn to speak a month later in Dallas, Reagan, using flowery, patriotic imagery, boasted about his record -- but didn't say a word about the environment or energy policy.

1988 -- Michael Dukakis vs. George H.W. Bush

During his July 21 convention speech in Atlanta, Michael Dukakis, a successful three-term Massachusetts governor, promised a "new era of greatness for America" after eight years of Republican rule. He vowed to break from Reagan in several significant ways, including: "We're going to have an Environmental Protection Agency that is more interested in stopping pollution than in protecting the polluters." It was his only reference to environment and energy issues.

George H.W. Bush offered himself to the American people as the embodiment of a Reagan third term.

"My friends, eight years ago this economy was flat on its back -- intensive care," he told Republican delegates in New Orleans on Aug. 18. "We came in and gave it the emergency treatment: got the temperature down by lowering regulation, got the blood pressure down when we lowered taxes. Pretty soon, the patient was up, back on his feet and stronger than ever."

Bush also talked about his early years working in the oil fields of west Texas. But in a summer when medical waste was washing up on the shores of Atlantic beaches, he also gave a strong environmental statement.

"I am going to stop ocean dumping," he said. "Our beaches should not be garbage dumps, and our harbors should not be cesspools. I am going to have the FBI trace the medical wastes, and we are going to punish the people who dump these infected needles into our oceans, lakes and rivers. And we must clean the air. We must reduce the harm done by acid rain.

"I will put incentives back into the domestic energy industry, for I know from personal experience there is no security for the United States in further dependence on foreign oil."

1992 -- Bill Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush

During his July 16 convention speech at Madison Square Garden, Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, built a largely economic case against Bush, and accused the Republican incumbent of ignoring myriad problems. He didn't say much about energy and the environment, but he didn't have to: He chose as his running mate Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, author of the call to arms for environmentalists "Earth in the Balance."

Clinton acknowledged as much in his speech.

Bush, he said, "won't take the lead in protecting the environment and creating new jobs in environmental technologies for the 21st century, but I will. He doesn't have Al Gore, and I do. Just in case you didn't notice, that's Gore with an e at the end."

When his turn came a month later at the Houston Astrodome, Bush seemed more interested in running against Jimmy Carter than his actual opponent -- though Carter was a dozen years removed from the White House -- saying that "the last time Democrats controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, [the result was] gas lines, grain embargoes, American hostages blindfolded."

Bush did list among his accomplishments "our new clean air pact," and said he had put a check on "unnecessary federal regulations." But he complained that his energy policies were being thwarted by the Democratic Congress.

"How many days did it take to win the Gulf War?" he asked, referencing one of the triumphs of his term. "Forty-three. How many did it take Congress to pass a national energy strategy? Five hundred and thirty-two, and still counting. I have ridden stationary bikes that can move faster than the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate, controlled by the Democrat leadership."

The Republican audience cheered, "Hit 'em again! Hit 'em again, harder, harder!" But on Election Day, it was the Democrats who mugged the Republicans.

1996 -- Bob Dole vs. Clinton

Bob Dole's acceptance speech, on Aug. 15 in San Diego, made no references to energy policy or the environment beyond a vague mention of wanting to cut back regulations. But he did use some relevant poetic images at the opening of his speech.

"I was born in Russell, Kan., a small town in the middle of the prairie surrounded by wheat and oil wells," the former Senate majority leader began. He later added, "The first thing you learn on the prairie is the relative size of a man compared to the lay of the land. And under the immense sky where I was born and raised, a man is very small, and if he thinks otherwise, he's wrong."

Two weeks later in Chicago, Clinton gave one of his patented expansive speeches that touched on just about everything, in which he popularized the phrase he repeated often that night, speaking of "the bridge to the 21st century."

"I want to build a bridge to the 21st century with a clean and safe environment," Clinton said. "We are making our food safer from pesticides. We're protecting our drinking water and our air from poisons. We saved Yellowstone from mining. We established the largest park south of Alaska in the Mojave Desert in California. We are working to save the precious Florida Everglades. And when the leaders of this Congress invited the polluters into the back room to roll back 25 years of environmental protections that both parties had always supported, I said no.

"But we must do more. Today 10 million children live within just 4 miles of a toxic waste dump. We've cleaned up 197 of those dumps in the last three years, more than in the previous 12 years combined. In the next four years we propose to clean up 500 more -- two-thirds of all that are left and the most dangerous ones. Our children should grow up next to parks, not poison.

"We should make it a crime even to attempt to pollute. We should freeze the serious polluter's property until they clean up the problems they create. We should make it easier so they can do more to protect their own children. These are the things we must do to build that bridge to the 21st century."

2000 -- George W. Bush vs. Al Gore

Speaking to the Republican convention in Philadelphia on Aug. 3, George W. Bush, who like his father had spent time in the oil and gas business and was an ally to the industry as governor of Texas, didn't say much about energy or the environment. In fact, trying to project himself as a "compassionate conservative," Bush almost sounded like a liberal Democrat during his quick references to planet Earth.

"We are learning to protect the natural world around us," he said. "We will continue this progress, and we will not turn back. ... Corporations are responsible -- to treat their workers fairly, and leave the air and waters clean."

Two weeks later, at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles, Gore proved himself to be ever the environmental crusader, becoming the first -- and only -- nominee at any convention to utter the words "global warming." He also inveighed against powerful corporations, including "Big Oil [and] the big polluters." And as he did during his previous convention speeches as the nominee for vice president, Gore told a story.

"In my first term [in Congress], a family in Hardeman County, Tenn., wrote a letter and told how worried they were about toxic waste that had been dumped near their home," he began. "I've held some of the first hearings on the issue. And ever since, I've been there in the fight against the big polluters.

"Our children should not have to draw the breath of life in cities awash in pollution. When they come in from playing on a hot summer afternoon, every child in America, anywhere in America, ought to be able to turn on the faucet and get a glass of safe, clean drinking water.

"On the issue of the environment, I've never given up, I've never backed down, and I never will. And I say it again tonight: We must reverse the silent, rising tide of global warming."

2004 -- John Kerry vs. Bush

The principal issues of the election were homeland security and the Iraq War, both in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, opened his July 29 convention speech at the Fleet Center in Boston by saluting the crowd and saying, "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty."

Early in the speech, talking about his childhood, the Massachusetts senator credited his mother for his fervor for the environment. "She taught me to see trees as the cathedrals of nature," he said.

Throughout his address, Kerry sought to contrast his own values with Bush's, using stinging one-liners to argue that Republicans aligned themselves with corporate interests rather than average Americans.

"I will have a vice president who will not conduct secret meetings with polluters to rewrite our environmental laws," Kerry said, referring to Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force.

"You don't value families by kicking kids out of after-school programs and taking cops off the streets, so that Enron can get another tax break," he added later.

In another part of the speech, Kerry said, "We value an America that controls its own destiny because it's finally and forever independent of Mideast oil. ... I want a country that relies on its ingenuity and innovation, not the Saudi royal family. And our energy plan for a stronger America -- our energy plan will invest in new technologies and alternative fuels and the cars of the future, so that no young American in uniform will ever be held hostage to our dependence on oil from the Middle East."

Bush's Sept. 2 speech at Madison Square Garden was heavy on national security, and even though some critics charged that his decision to invade Iraq was based in part on a desire to free up that country's oil reserves, Bush barely gave a mention to energy during his convention address.

"To create jobs, my plan will encourage investment and expansion by restraining federal spending, reducing regulation and making the tax relief permanent," he said. "To create jobs, we will make our country less dependent on foreign sources of energy."

2008 -- Barack Obama vs. John McCain

For all the symbolism of his campaign, for all his soaring rhetoric about hope and change, Barack Obama delivered an undeniably partisan address at the Democratic convention in Denver on Aug. 28. He criticized Bush in very personal terms, and worked hard to link John McCain with the president, accusing the GOP of favoring "tax breaks for big corporations and oil companies but not one penny of tax relief to more than 100 million Americans."

"For the sake of our economy, our security and the future of our planet, I will set a clear goal as president: In 10 years, we will finally end our dependence on oil from the Middle East," Obama said later. "Washington has been talking about our oil addiction for 30 years, and John McCain has been there for 26 of them. In that time, he's said no to higher efficiency standards for cars, no to investments in renewable energy, no to renewable fuels. And today we import triple the amount of oil as the day Sen. McCain took office.

"Now is the time to end this addiction and to understand that drilling is a stopgap measure, not a long-term solution. Not even close.

"As president, I will tap our natural gas reserves, invest in clean coal technology and find ways to safely harness nuclear power. I'll help our auto companies retool, so that the fuel-efficient cars of the future are built right here in America. I'll make it easier for the American people to afford these new cars. And I'll invest $150 billion in the next decade in affordable, renewable sources of energy -- wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels: an investment that will lead to new industries and 5 million new jobs that pay well and can't ever be outsourced."

In his convention speech, delivered one week later in St. Paul, Minn., McCain, at least on the energy and environment front, didn't sound a whole lot different from Obama. He praised his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, saying that "she's tackled tough problems, like energy independence and corruption," and that she also "knows what it's like to worry about ... the cost of gasoline and groceries."

"We'll produce more energy at home," McCain said later. "We will drill new wells offshore, and we'll drill them now. We'll build more nuclear power plants. We'll develop clean-coal technology. We'll increase the use of wind, tide, solar and natural gas. We'll encourage the development and use of flex-fuel, hybrid and electric automobiles.

"Sen. Obama thinks we can achieve energy independence without more drilling and without more nuclear power," he said. "But Americans know better than that."

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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