Message: Keep it clean

A Republican consultant friend of mine has learned to watch Western Europe closely for political trends and changes in attitude as an “early indicator” of what we may expect to see soon on this side of the pond. He recently told a group of international consultants of following the reaction in Sweden to the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004. Swedes do love their beaches and some 20,000 were vacationing in Thailand over the Christmas-New Year holiday. Over 500 Swedes died in that crushing wave, the largest number of any Western nation.

The Swedish government was slow to respond, at first reporting 50 deaths, then providing little information to distraught families at home and little aid to stranded tourists in Southeast Asia. Disbelief turned to anger. Eventually a Tsunami Commission was formed; its report faulted the government for inaction.

My Republican friend, who oddly enough had many personal and business contacts among Sweden’s ruling Social Democrats, called from time to time to ask about the political backlash. “Don’t worry,” he was told, “we’ll ride this out.” They were, he concluded, in denial. The voters agreed. They swept the Social Democrats from 10 years in power.

Less than a year later this same consultant watched the Bush administration demonstrate the same inept response to Hurricane Katrina. He called friends at the White House who told him not to worry. Everything was going to be just fine.
The president had just flown over the devastation in Air Force One to survey the damage, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency was on the case. My friend told his friends of the trouble a natural disaster had created for a Swedish government, but was politely brushed off. “They were in denial,” he now says.

Already suffering from misleading America into war in Iraq and mishandling the execution of that war, Katrina finally persuaded Americans that this government couldn’t run the country. That perception hurt Republicans greatly in the midterm elections. Now — with scandals over the leak of Valerie Plame’s identity, the inability to justify firing eight U.S. attorneys and favoritism at the World Bank adding to a perception of incompetence, cronyism and corruption — President
George W. Bush is testing the limits of how low a president’s approval rating can go.

So if Europe can be the canary in the coal mine for American politics, is there any message there for a fresh crop of presidential candidates? What I was hearing at a recent European political conference suggests the candidates should consider going greener. Sure, they all make reference to ending America’s dependence on foreign oil. But no one is talking specifics. No one seems to have a plan. The last effective energy plan in America, by the way, was created by President Jimmy Carter and soaring oil prices in the 1970s. Carter’s policies have largely been reversed since then and we are now, as many have pointed out, funding both sides in the war on terror with our reliance on Persian Gulf oil.

The Russians are complaining about not having a white Christmas for the first time in history. Swedes are losing their precious forests to an infestation of spruce beetles finding a warmer habitat. Traditional crops are threatened by a changing climate throughout Europe. Certainly America is not alone in contributing to global warming. But the world is looking this way for leadership. China, Brazil and India see no reason to cut back their emissions if the U.S. will not.

Environmental concerns have not yet broken into the top tier of issues for American voters, but where politicians have shown leadership, they are finding a receptive audience. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a prime example in California. He’s not waiting for Washington to lead the way, and it is gaining him support among moderates in both
political parties.

The world is waiting for the right message from some candidate for president. The message has to recognize cold hard realities and talk about a carbon tax to make going green economically feasible. It must be visionary and play to America’s strength, technological innovation. It could include a 21st century version of the Manhattan Project. As New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote, “Clean-tech plays to America’s strength because [it] takes a lot of knowledge — not cheap labor.” That America is ready to lead is a message the world is willing to hear. I suspect American voters will soon respond to it as well.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com