Harry Reid is right.

Coal does make us sick.

It’s not even debatable. It’s just the truth. The fact that Republicans think they can use this fact against Democrats tells me just how out of touch they are with the new realities of American politics. The only question is whether the McCain campaign will turn out to be equally misguided.

The YouTube video of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appearing on the FOX Business Channel saying that “coal makes us sick” is garnering huge numbers of hits, with some help from Matt Drudge, who put the link to it on his DrudgeReport. Republicans are reportedly sending the video around to try to make the point that Democrats are hopelessly out of touch with the need to produce more, and less expensive, fuel.

If only it were twenty years ago. Or maybe thirty. It would work like a charm.

When I first started in politics, coal enjoyed bipartisan protection from political criticism. Democrats were unwilling to criticize coal because they wanted and needed the votes of the people who worked in the mines; Republicans were mum because they enjoyed the support of the people who owned and ran them. The result was that everyone was “for” coal, and to make the point that it makes us sick would have been considered political suicide for either side.

But the protection coal enjoyed politically did not protect the public against its harmful impact. It did not protect miners from dying of black lung, or pregnant women from registering high levels of mercury. Speak no evil doesn’t make the evil go away.

Every year, according to the American Lung Association, some 24,000 people die because of the effects of pollution caused by coal-fired power plants. These plants are the largest human source of mercury pollution, which today has one in six pregnant women testing too high (according to the EPA) for mercury in their bloodstreams, even though we know that high levels of mercury in a mother’s blood and breast milk can cause problems with the development of her baby’s brain and neurological system, problems which result in learning disabilities, serious attention disorders, and significantly lower IQ’s. As for coal miners themselves, they pay the highest price: according to the CDC, some 12,000 miners died from black lung in the decade between 1992 and 2002.

But what about the economy? The old conventional wisdom that had coal creating jobs – and thus made any attack political poison – just doesn’t hold water anymore. In fact, the industry is increasingly dependent on machinery, not men. In West Virginia in 1948, it took 126,000 miners to produce 168 million tons of coal; in 2005, just 15,000 miners in that state produced 128 million tons.


Coal-is-dirty.com provides a wealth of such “coal hard facts” about the industry, all of which add up to a very different equation than the one that used to govern the politics of coal. And I haven’t even gotten to the global warming argument: the U.S. produces about a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, and burning coals accounts for 40 percent of that. Coal emits more carbon when burned than either natural gas or oil.

There was a time not so long ago when “the environment” was considered an elitist issue, the concern of those with the time and leisure not to be worried about bread-and-butter issues. In those days, a comment that “coal makes us sick” would have been a powerful weapon to prove that your Democratic opponent was an out-of-touch elitist, more in tune with the “white wine and brie” set than with the concerns of working people who decide contested elections.

But those days are gone. Too many kids, and adults, have asthma for clean air to be an elitist issue. Too many people stand in line to get bottled water at the dispenser to dismiss the health costs of pollution as elitist. In 2008, the environment is a bread-and-butter issue, a concern of mothers who worry about their health, and their children’s, and fathers who feel responsible to their grandchildren for the quality of the air they breathe and the water they drink. The question is not whether Harry Reid is out of touch, but whether John McCain is.

Presidential elections are won in the middle. The candidate who occupies that middle ground, and succeeds in boxing his opponent out of it, is the one who wins. The Republicans will try to paint Barack Obama as a liberal, but it won’t work if McCain is himself locked in on the right. John McCain has to decide whether he’s going to run for president as an independent moderate, willing to take on the right, or as the conservative successor to the Bush-Cheney legacy. It’s clear where environmental concerns fit in those equations. What’s not yet clear is where McCain does.

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first female president of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for FOXNews.com.

Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission. A woman of firsts, she was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review and the first woman to head a national presidential campaign (Dukakis). Estrich is committed to paving the way for women to assume positions of leadership. Books by Estrich include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders." Her book "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women," is a departure from her other works, encouraging women to take care of themselves by engaging the mind to fight for a healthy body. Her latest book, The Los Angeles Times bestseller, "Sex & Power," takes an impassioned look at the division of power between men and women in the American workforce, proving that the idea of gender equality is still just an idea.