The Total Eclipse

Anyone with a sense of history has probably been struck by the remarkably skewed nature of the current national discussion (as reflected in the presidential contest) on energy and the environment. At last night’s second presidential debate, there was a very extended discussion of the two candidates’ positions on oil and gas exploration and coal-fired utilities. Romney looked for a while like he was going to stake the entire election on a personal nose-to-nose confrontation with Obama over how many permits the administration issued for exploitation of public lands and waters by oil companies.

Yet the word “environment” came up exactly once, when Obama suggested it was possible to greatly expand natural gas production “in an environmentally sound way.” That was it. And as Grist‘s Lisa Hymas ruefully noted in a summary of the debate:

Romney also took some knocks straight from Obama — but, depressingly, most of them consisted of the president defending fossil-fuel development.

Four years ago the Republican presidential candidate had been one of Washington’s most active legislators on climate change (though he was subsequently forced to retreat from much of his own legislation). Now not only are climate change and greenhouse gas emissions more or less forbidden subjects in the presidential contest, but environmental concerns that have been fully bipartisan for decades are going unmentioned.

Yes, of course, some of this change reflects a bad economy (though this is not the first serious U.S. recession since Earth Day, and we’ve never had anything like the current total eclipse of environmental issues). Some of it has to do with swing-state and swing-voter targeting, and the belief (apparently strong in both campaigns) that the identity of the next president depends on people living in coal-dependent southeastern Ohio or southwestern Virginia, or on auto workers used to viewing “environmentalists” as the enemy. It’s notable that Obama’s big “green” gesture last night was also swing-state-dictated: a shout-out to a wind energy tax credit that’s very popular in Iowa, and that Romney has opposed.

And a lot of the change in–if you’ll excuse the term–“the environment” simply flows from the dramatically rapid radicalization of the Republican Party on this entire cluster of subjects, which comes from a lot of directions (corporate pressure, hatred of scientific elites, Christian Right “dominion over the earth” enthusiasts, etc.).

It’s still shocking, though, and the best example we have of the hard-core Right just taking a previously unavoidable issue right off the table, precisely when it most needs to be discussed.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.