It’s the Environment, Stupid

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Given the dictates by handlers of the president and challenger, the first debate went off better than I, and apparently the pundits, expected. You know there were no major gaffes when all Republicans had to seize upon was John Kerry’s undefined “Global Test.” Democrats were left with the “Peeve Factor,” Bush’s obvious discomfort at being subjected to dissent. Remember, he’s been giving the same stump speech for months only to invited audiences programmed to cheer and boo at predictable buzz phrases.

Will he be more comfortable in the Town Hall format of the next encounter? Surely not a debate in any accepted sense, the subject will be domestic issues the administration co-opted from Democrats during the last campaign. Forget that in the last four years we’ve lost ground on all of these. No special interest left behind.

What we’re never going to hear is a real debate on the issue that transcends all others. It’s the Environment, Stupid. Degradation of our natural resources and rollbacks of existing environmental protections, pushed by this president in the past four years, is a pressing issue that affects all of us. Our health, our food, our water, the air we try, with increasing difficulty, to breathe and our safety. Yes, safety. From nuclear facilities left unprotected to storage of high-level radioactive waste, reclassified recently by the EPA as “incidental,” meaning it may be abandoned in leaking containers to leach into our shrinking supply of ground water.

If we were allowed to have this debate, and surely we won’t, there are several questions I imagine Sen. Kerry would like to ask the president. Some might have been part of the foreign policy debate since they affect the rest of the planet as much as North America and because they definitely reflect how we are viewed by the rest of the world.

Why did you pull out of the Kyoto Accord, essentially thumbing your nose at the rest of the world, which had finally united in efforts to address human impact on climate change? Probable answer: “It’s not in the best interest of America.” Well, that wouldn’t fill two minutes. And why did you abandon the nuclear proliferation treaty? “It’s no longer relevant and not in the best interest of America.” Follow up: Wasn’t it because you’re developing new nuclear weapons like the “bunker buster” for the War on Terror? And if we still honored the treaty, we wouldn’t need a nuclear missile shield? “My job is to protect America. It’s hard work.”

Oh, well, that one’s over. We obviously have no interest in the health and well being of the rest of the world. No wonder we have fewer allies than ever.

Here at home, however, lots of voters care about lost jobs, the price and accessibility of healthcare, unfunded mandates on education, Social Security for themselves and their parents and, of course, Medicare and Medicaid, the ultimate safety net for millions. The Town Hall “debate” should address these. But will anyone ask why the cost of “modernization” of Medicare, with its prescription drug benefit, has been shifted to taxpayers and current retirees? Why Medicare premiums will rise 30 percent next year, withheld directly from monthly Social Security checks? Shouldn’t the pharmaceutical companies, which are profiting enormously from this modernization, absorb the cost? Since the new bill precludes Medicare from negotiating lower drug prices, as the Veteran’s Administration has done for decades, healthcare costs will rise exponentially. The drug companies have already raised their prices to pay for the temporary prescription drug cards they issue. Won’t this leave even more people without any healthcare? Won’t even more hospital emergency rooms be forced to close as government reimbursement for mandated treatment of Medicare and Medicaid patients is lowered or cut off? And how will those who labor in minimum wage jobs afford to put aside money for personal health savings accounts? The answer, Mr. President, is they won’t. And how is that in the best interest of America? Has it occurred to you, Mr. President, that undercutting the Clean Air Act to allow more air pollution from power plants increases the number of children suffering from asthma? That permitting mountain top excavation for coal and coal bed methane extraction has fouled more streams and wells and surface and ground water supplies, depriving people of clean drinking water. And why did the EPA fail to ban agricultural herbicides like atrazine, saying drinking water contaminated with 12 times the legal limit poses no health risk? And why are the fish in so many lakes and streams unsafe to eat because of mercury poisoning while you advocated trading of mercury pollution credits? And why can’t you see that all of these decisions, that favor polluting industries, will increase healthcare costs for decades to come?

Of course, we won’t get to ask these questions. And even if we did, I suppose we’d just hear, “It’s in the best interest of America.” And which America would that be, sir? The one that has seceded from the rest of the planet?