Taking a Chapter from the Clinton Playbook, with a Twist
Residents of southern Utah still deeply resent former President Bill Clinton’s surprise and unwelcome designation of several national monuments there in September 1996, in a typically-slick attempt to secure the endorsement of Gang Green just in time for election day. Clinton’s “September surprise” was so hated by locals, and so angered Utah’s elected leaders, that he made the big announcement in Arizona, rather than Utah, assuming (correctly) that the White House reporting pool wouldn’t know (or care about) the difference. It was hard for reporters to hear the shouts of protest coming from the far side of the Grand Canyon. Clinton’s handlers didn’t want a bunch of naysaying yokels detracting from the warm and fuzzy feelings.
Given this history, and the possibility that President Obama might try pulling “a Clinton” of his own as election day looms, for similarly political, self-serving reasons, one can understand why Utahns are bristling at any suggestion of new national monument designations in the region. What really rankled them about Clinton’s designations (aside from the land access restrictions and lost jobs they would bring) was the fact that the scheme was all hatched in secret, by White House staff and their allies in outside environmental groups. Utahns learned about it in a press release. The lack of consultation with those most impacted – signaling Clinton’s blithe indifference to their objections and concerns – added insult to injury. And if anyone thinks locals have warmed to the monuments in the intervening years, they should think again. I’ve spent time in the Arizona strip, consorting with locals, and I can assure you that hard feelings remain.
A little of that bitter history is recounted in this news story:
“A push by environmental groups for a possible national monument designation along the Arizona Strip is provoking outrage among Utah politicians who say it will kill ranching jobs, permanently extinguish any uranium mining in the area and possibly derail the Lake Powell pipeline. They also say the proposal is a harkening to the 1996 designation by then-President Bill Clinton, who made the sweeping declaration to create the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, closing off for development 1.7 million acres of coal-rich country in southern Utah.
Clinton made the announcement with virtually no warning to Utah’s elected leaders — a move that came during a re-election campaign, similar to the election timing facing President Obama.Presidents have the authority to designate new national monuments under provisions of the 1906 Antiquities Act. Western congressional delegations say such power usurps their authority in public land designations.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he remembers the stinging anger of Utahns after the Clinton designation and vowed to fight any hint that environmental groups have President Obama’s ear on this issue.
“I’ve told the Obama Administration that this proposal is an absolute outrage to every single Utahn,” he said, “and I will not sit idly by as this president continues to take its orders from its East Coast environmentalist allies at the expense of Utah.”
And this isn’t the only pro-designation lobbying campaign underway. Green groups remember well the bone they were thrown by Clinton back in the 1990s, when reelection was on the line, and they’re hoping and angling for a reprise. Most rank and file Westerners, and rural Westerners in particular, fear and oppose any new designations, understanding that they frequently come with access restrictions, job losses and a wave of new bureaucratic hassles that incrementally chip away at their freedom-oriented way of life. Most new national monuments are about as welcome in surrounding communities as a pine beetle outbreak, the spread of brucellosis or reintroduced wolves.
So is all this an overreaction? Not in my view. Several elements lend plausibility to a possible Obama replay of Clinton’s “September surprise.”
First, of course, is the timing. And the circumstances. It’s election season and this bumbling President is desperate to generate positive headlines and solidify his base. Locals haven’t forgotten that Clinton’s designations were part of an 11th-hour ploy to secure Big Green’s support right before election day. And Obama still may have some work to do on that front, despite his derailing of the Keystone pipeline. His recent efforts to reinvent himself as a friend to fossil fuels muted the plaudits be was receiving from the green lobby after his monkey-wrenching of Keystone. And the movement he’s trying to placate is made up of impossible-to-please malcontents who are contantly upping the ante. Obama’s belated support for half a pipeline further angered greens who were only months earlier looking at the Keystone conflict as a total triumph. And if Democrat defections in Congress eventually hand Obama a defeat on Keystone, he may need another means of placating disheartened enviros. This would be a quick and relatively easy consolation prize.
For Utah State Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, who’s been battling the monument designations since Clinton made them, it seems like deja vu all over again. ”It’s a move by (environmental groups) to say if you want to get our base out behind you, you have to do this, this and that,” Noel told the Deseret News. “Utah is the sacrificial lamb — Utah and Arizona.”
Obama’s growing fondness for policymaking through unilateral executive action, forced in part, no doubt, by his inability to get anything passed in Congress, must also worry Westerners who fear a replay of 1996.
Another ominous harbinger is this administration’s already-established predisposition toward such designations. Some may recall the furor that erupted in early 2010 when a secret list of possible new national monuments was leaked to the media. The uproar and brow-beating the administration received (mostly from Westerners) quickly had the President and his Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar, backpedaling, insisting that these weren’t concrete proposals but just Department of Interior brainstorming exercises. Few took such denials seriously.
Would Obama really risk poking this hornet’s nest anew now? In my opinion he would, given the impudent, combative, in-your-face tone of his campaign, and the contempt he shows for all who stand in his way. He won’t carry Utah and Arizona will be a challenge. What does he care if he angers or alienates people who don’t support him anyway? Clinton paid no significant political price for his ”September surprise” — be came away smelling like roses, as usual, despite some grumbling in Congress. And that wouldn’t be lost on Obama when doing the political calculations.
Using the Antiquities Act as a “legacy”-building shortcut has become commonplace among recent presidents, of both parties, despite Congressional carping about abuses of power. And yes, Bush did it too – a fact the White House will use to disarm Republican critics if Obama makes his move. It’s an easy way for a president to earn his environmental merit badge with the simple stroke of a pen. It’s just too tempting for most presidents to pass up. Unsure of whether he will actually get a second term, or enjoy much of a “legacy,” given the general mess he’s made of this term, this temptation may be too great for Obama to ignore. He’s got little to lose at this point. And few would describe this president as risk-averse.
The scenario seems to be unfolding with one significant difference from the Clinton years. But it’s a difference that might increase the probability of an Obama surprise. This time round, outside environmental groups have helped establish a pretext for designation by formally petitioning BLM for a new monument covering the Grand Canyon watershed. A BLM spokesman in one news report made this sound routine, but it is not routine, and the timing is suspicious. Outside groups petitioning for a designation effectively removes the whiff of stealth and skullduggery that hung over Clinton’s actions, by positioning the Obama White House to be seen as responding to public demand for action, rather than as an instigator. Were he contemplating a reprise of the surprise, and interested in learning from Clinton’s mistakes and minimizing the regional backlash, Obama would be smart enough to remove secrecy as an issue and criticism. He can help accomplish that with this reactive, rather than proactive, twist.
Getting regional environmental activists to help establish the pretext for designation gives Obama political cover Clinton lacked. He’ll seem less nakedly self-serving if he can claim he’s responding to “public demand,” rather than just a ruthless, reelection-minded politico on an endorsement hunting expedition.
I would say, based on all this, that the chances are reasonably good that we could see a ”September surprise”-like monument designation from President Obama as election day nears. A few Westerners will again raise their voices in outraged opposition, as they did in Clinton’s day. But for the rest of the country, and the Obama-loving press corps, these naysayers might as well be shouting their protests from the far side of the Grand Canyon.