When you search McCain's biography, his books, and the torrent of interviews for the essence of his green politics, you find a lurching tone, omissions, and late-breaking plot developments that raise serious doubts about the wisdom of entrusting the environmental fate of the country to a McCain presidency.
The peripatetic and eventful first half of the senator's life left him rootless and untouched by any connection to place, much less an environmental sensibility. Settling in Arizona after marrying his second wife, Cindy, he learned to love the scenic grandeur of Arizona. He was taken under the wing of Mo Udall in Congress, and he took a crash course in land issues as an Interior Committee member in the 1980s. But the depth of this education in western states' environmental politics and of his collaboration with Udall in setting aside public land as wilderness shouldn't be exaggerated. He remained a reliable Reagan Revolution foot soldier and an aggressive pro-business conservative.
The true story of McCain's environmental record is that he's more committed to the appearance of conservation than to actually conserving anything. McCain urged the Gingrich-era GOP to tone down its virulent anti-environmental rhetoric while making it clear this was an issue of better packaging rather than better policies. "We Republicans," he declared in 1996, "are responsible for much of the negative perception of our environmental record." The significance of his 2000 presidential bid for green issues would have been negligible – except voters kept asking McCain about global warming, so he looked into it, and, observers say, used it to exact a bit of political payback from Bush, who had trashed him in the primary. He held hearings in the Commerce Committee during which he acknowledged the real threats posed by climate change but lacked the vision or conviction to take it any further.
Just as he has been otherwise silent about Bush's ignominious environmental record, his adoration of Ronald Reagan was never tempered by any acknowledgement that Reagan was, in the words of Stewart Udall (Mo's brother, and secretary of the Interior for JFK and LBJ), "the first overtly anti-conservation president of [the 20th] century." McCain never sees the bigger picture.
Even less diverting than the grizzly bear yukfest is McCain's opportunistic response to this year's soaring gasoline prices. In June, as part of his new "all of the above" energy policy, he announced a call to end the federal moratorium on offshore drilling in U.S. waters. Oil companies already have access to 34 billion barrels of offshore reserves; the areas McCain would open offer only an additional 8 billion barrels, and these reserves would not become available for many years.
"Anyone who tells you that this will bring down our gas prices immediately or anytime soon is blowing smoke," said California's Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Immediately following McCain's declaration, nearly $1 million materialized in his campaign coffers.
Then there's perhaps the saddest story of all: McCain's slow-motion retreat on drilling in ANWR. Like other McCain stands, this one has proven to be shallow and reversible. This summer, as the drumbeat for more domestic drilling became louder, along with false promises that doing so would lower gas prices, rumors flew that McCain would flip on ANWR. His staff was said to be studying the political calculus of pandering to credulous oil addicts. (In August, a poll in Arizona found that 55% of residents would rather reduce the price of oil and gas than protect the environment.) McCain himself floated cautious trial balloons, telling the 'Weekly Standard' he'd "continue to examine it" and call Alaska governor Sarah Palin, a strong proponent of drilling in ANWR, to discuss the issue. T. Boone Pickens reported that he had urged McCain to push for ANWR drilling and that McCain "said that he hadn't decided to do that . . . yet." On the eve of the Republican convention in Minneapolis, a provision promoting ANWR drilling in the GOP platform was grudgingly left out, but party officials expressed confidence that McCain, who has said his mind remains open "in light of this changed economic environment," would come around after the election – if not sooner.
Then McCain picked Palin to be his VP, another anti-environmental tell. Palin has dismissed the findings of Alaska's own wildlife scientists in the course of vehemently resisting the endangered-species designation of polar bears. The pick strongly suggests that the earlier gambit of having McCain swayed by Palin is definitely in play. To its proponents, the sacking of ANWR would deliver a political blow that far transcends the value of petroleum, and Palin speaks their atavistic language. "Drilling in Alaska is going to be a matter of life and death," she told CNBC in late August. "We're bursting with billions of barrels of oil." It will certainly be life or death to the Porcupine River caribou; the disputed "sliver" of coastal plain is the destination of the animals' 3,000-mile migration – the longest of any land mammal. Say goodbye to caribou calves and hello to a penny-a-gallon reduction in gas prices. In 2018.
Whether McCain surrenders on ANWR or just continues to wobble, this betrayal is personal. The refuge is a precious asset in Mo Udall's greatest achievement, the Alaska Lands Act of 1980, which also established 15 national parks, including Denali. Udall, who died in 1998, loved wilderness but knew politics, and words he once wrote should be ringing in McCain's ears today: "As America's finite resources and fossil fuels begin to run out, will ecologically aware legislators be able to resist the pressures . . . to exchange open space and free-flowing rivers, even the 'Crown Jewels' of Alaska, for jobs and highways and gasoline? I hope so, but it saddens me to say: I wouldn't bet on it."