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Published: Sunday, 7/30/2000

Voters see the forest -- and the trees

WASHINGTON - If there's such a thing as a punk Republican, Frank Luntz is it.

A brash, boyish pollster who wears a tie under duress and only sometimes under TV lights, Mr. Luntz likes to tell Republicans what they're doing wrong. At the moment, he's all keyed up over how they're handling the environment as a political issue.

Republicans, he severely admonishes, need to start talking more about "preserving" the national heritage and "protecting" the national environment and making sure conservation is done more "wisely" and more "effectively."

Above all, he writes in horrified boldface in his newsletter, "The War Room," Republicans must change their approach. "Don't say: 'risk assessment' or 'cost-benefit analysis.' "

GOP candidates, he says, should "tell your audience how you enjoy the great outdoors" and insist on the need to "preserve and protect the environment for your own children and grandchildren."

Better yet, he advises, "Provide an example of the last time you went fishing, visited a seashore, or went camping in a national park with the grandkids. Remind your audience that no one - NO ONE - wants to go back to the days of polluted air and water."

GOP chairman Jim Nicholson's favorite attack on Vice President Gore is to call him an environmental "extremist." He's ordered so many copies of Gore's book, Earth in the Balance, in an effort to underscore what he thinks are the juicy parts that Republicans can use against Mr. Gore that he's caused a mild spike in sales. He's in danger of making Mr. Gore's book popular.

Some Republicans think Mr. Nicholson, a western horseman, has gotten too strident in his insistence that environmental regulators are out of control.

On the other hand, some Democrats worry that Mr. Gore is too strident about his belief that more must be done on complicated, controversial issues such as global warming and salmon spawning grounds and clean car engines that get 80 miles to a gallon. They want him to talk about Social Security and Medicare.

Both parties are underestimating the intelligence of Americans on environmental issues. We've come a long way from protest demonstrations over snail darters.

The current controversy in New York City is a prime example. The West Nile virus carried in the bite of infected mosquitoes is a frightening and dangerous development. City officials felt they had no choice but to spray hundreds of blocks and hundreds of acres in Central Park with pesticides to try to avoid more deaths from the virus. But New Yorkers worry about the effects of such chemicals on already polluted urban neighborhoods.

Environmental protection is all about tradeoffs, and more often than not, they're not easy decisions to make. They're usually a compromise between not doing too much economic harm to one group of people in order to minimize potential harm to another group. Sometimes the bureaucrats run amok; sometimes they get it right. And it should be fodder for campaign talk.

Despite his constant efforts to tell Americans how he is "fighting" for them, Mr. Gore still hasn't mastered the art of being passionate without being ridiculous. But his tendency is still to be tendentious without being charming. He boasts that he chaired the U.S. congressional delegation to the inter-parliamentary conference on the global environment, which reached an agreement among 40 nations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. One wants to scream, "Who cares?"

On the other hand, for years Mr. Gore has taken his children rafting down the Colorado River, mountain climbing, and camping to teach them about the glory of the outdoors. Yet we haven't seen him having fun outside, merely standing in front of a series of landscapes lecturing us or tearing into Republicans. And there was that awkward moment when the water was released to make sure his canoe looked good.

On the other hand, Mr. Luntz's sophomoric advice to Republicans such as George W. Bush to sugar coat and dumb down environmental issues and talk about personal awakening on long walks along the beach is also a disservice to voters.

Nearly all reputable polling shows that Americans care about environmental pollution and degradation, especially near their own back yards and where their own children grow up. They know that giving up economic growth doesn't have to be the tradeoff for cleaning up air and water, reducing smog and ending dependence on foreign oil. But they also know that more science and thoughtfulness and common sense have to go into regulations on the environment.

Hey, Frank. Environmental protection seems to be one area where the voters are ahead of the candidates. They might even understand an intelligent national conversation about conservation, perhaps even using such phrases as "cost-benefit analysis" and "risk assessment."

Ann McFeatters is chief of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail amcfeatters@nationalpress.com



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