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Presidential advisers duel for green cred—but not too hard



Environmental issues, particularly global climate change, enjoyed a star turn a few years ago, mainly as the result of some very bad weather and a newly hirsute Al Gore and his 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth.

For a time, as the initial presidential contenders began their campaigns, there seemed to be an historic number of pols willing to accept the premise that climate change was a reality and that environmental issues were at the forefront of voters' minds.

But over the last year or so, as America's economy has slowed and then staggered, and the light at the end of the Iraq tunnel disappeared, the environment started to take a back seat in the speeches of the shrinking field of viable presidential candidates.

In the neck-and-neck Democratic primary, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been forced to kowtow to the hysterical timbre of the 24-hour news cycle, where controversial remarks from an angry pastor or a famous husband generate much more interest than long-term plans to address complicated environmental problems.

So it was a change of pace in the prevailing tone of the campaign when the environmental advisers for the Barack and Clinton campaigns addressed a packed Love Auditorium at Duke University April 25.

Clinton adviser Dan Utech and Obama adviser Jason Grumet took turns answering questions from a moderator and then fielded queries from the audience.

In his opening statement, Grumet predicted "a really good wonkfest." The question-and-answer period was indeed more detailed than a presidential debate—in part because the audience appeared to be mainly composed of Duke undergraduate and graduate school science students (judging by the lengthy questions and the prevalence of flip-flops). These people cared a lot more about carbon sequestration than the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Neither adviser is a politician, though both have spent years on Capitol Hill. Both seemed genuinely interested in a real discussion, but were seriously curtailed by the hour-and-a-half time limit. The forum felt like the very beginning of a meaningful discussion.

Those who came to the forum looking for metaphors didn't have to look far: Clinton's adviser was obviously intelligent, with a pudge and pallor that bespoke too many rushed coffee-and-donut meals between meetings. His public persona seemed a little forced, though one sensed he would have been at ease negotiating behind closed doors. Grumet was tan and trim, and looked as if he'd just hopped off a mountain bike and changed into a suit before hitting the stage. He exuded energy and earnestness. He had the audience laughing 30 seconds into his opening statement.

However, the differences in demeanor were the biggest disparity between the two. Attendees who expected a hard sell in anticipation of North Carolina's primary were probably disappointed by the lack of fireworks and policy details. The two men spent more time agreeing with and complimenting each other and their respective opposing candidates than they did arguing.

Among the points of noncontention:

  • The Bush administration is bad for the environment.
  • Either Clinton or Obama would be good for the environment. (Utech: "Both candidates have very strong, aggressive plans." Grumet: "There's no question that Senator Clinton gets it.")
  • Nuclear power is not a viable long-term solution to America's energy needs.
  • We need to decrease our dependence on foreign oil, which will be very hard and take a long time.

Inasmuch as either adviser tried to push their candidate, they did so less on the basis of policy and more on the basis of political ability.

"I believe in my candidate and I think she's much better equipped to accomplish these things," said Utech.

"Senator Obama is able not just to get it, but to get it done," said Grumet.

None of the audience members who spoke to the Independent after the forum were persuaded to vote for either candidate by their stand-ins, though many were charmed by Grumet.

"The guy for Obama was a better communicator," said post-doctoral student Clinton Jenkins.

"[Grumet] was very articulate, not a stuffed shirt," said research assistant David Shiffman.

Brenna Muller and Virginia Walters of the Richmond-based Back Porch Energy Initiative said they wished there had been more time to discuss federal regulation of strip-mining and its harmful health effects. They agreed that there weren't huge policy differences, though Muller did make a distinction: "The guy for Obama was really funny."

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