With a politically threatened Sen. Bill Nelson at his side, Vice President Joe Biden mugged before the television cameras Monday to tout the Democrats’ successes in helping to restore the endangered Everglades.
Biden and Nelson’s speeches were short on new initiatives and focused more on the successes of President Obama’s administration in accelerating and spending more for Everglades restoration projects.
Republicans were invited, but none went or shared the stage with Nelson, Biden and Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings.
From the stagecraft to the recurring references to the administration to the made-for-TV images of the three air-boating through the Everglades, the event had a strong campaign quality to it as the general-election season starts in the nation’s largest battleground state.
“If you’re a political official, of which of course the vice president would be a prime example, everything you do is by definition political, said former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, who attended the event. “And now that we’re in an election year, it becomes more focused.”
Republicans Connie Mack, George LeMieux and Mike McCalister are vying to unseat Nelson -- the only statewide elected Democrat in Florida.
Reinforcing the campaign-style flavor of the event was Nelson’s introduction by Hastings, who received applause for saying the Democrat was about to win his “third term as our United States Senator.”
Nelson said he was happy to give Biden “a little glimpse into this extraordinary God’s creation.”
“The vice president got to see the River of Grass,” Nelson said. “And he got to see those alligators. He didn’t get to see the Burmese pythons which we are desperately trying to get rid of and finally, thanks to this administration, they have stopped the importation of this invasive species. Amen to that.”
Biden also touted the administration’s successes, but suggested that no Everglades restoration projects happened before he and Obama were elected. Biden, though, was referring only to the Everglades restoration projects passed in 2000.
Biden made no mention of the fact that many were in the permitting and design phase under the previous administration of President Bush. Biden also failed to mention other Everglades projects started by former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush – including the Picayune Strand project in Collier County that Biden highlighted.
Still, environmentalists point out that Obama’s Administration has called for more spending and more restoration projects more quickly.
In addition to highlighting the Picayune Strand restoration project, Biden drew attention to other clean-up projects, such as the $400 million plan to replace sections of the Tamiami Trail with a bridge that would allow more water to flow through the historic River of Grass.
For the administration, Everglades restoration is a good way to showcase its environmental bonafides as well as its argument that government spending creates jobs.
Biden noted that the administration has kickstarted a $1.5 billion investment into re-plumbing the Everglades has helped fund 6,600 “good-paying jobs” through the Army Corps of Engineers and “and thousands of indirect jobs.”
Biden said about 4.3 million tourists visit “the federal portions of the Everglades” and that the current restoration projects underway will produce $46.5 billion in economic activity in Florida.
“What we’re talking about here is an economic engine that generates millions of tourists to Florida who are renting hotel rooms, buying food renting autos taking out airboats and everything else you can imagine that goes along with it,” Biden said. “It’s a gigantic economic engine.”
Also, Biden pointed out, Everglades restoration helps guarantee freshwater for a third of the state's poopulation and a large part of its agricultural industry.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus issued a written statement bashing Biden’s “taxpayer funded trip to the swing state of Florida [that] demonstrates how worried the Obama campaign is about its chances in November.”
When asked about the criticism, Nelson said that “about 99.5 percent of Floridians know that restoration in the Everglades is important. It has been this administration that has helped us get things moving. And right here this bridge that’s being built that’ll let the water flow from the north into the Everglades national park. Proof’s in the pudding.”
But is this more a political event than a policy event?
“When you see the Everglades, you see the necessity of policy being in action real time,” Nelson said.
Is that a yes or no?
“Of course it is,” Nelson said. “It’s policy.”
Biden barely stopped to answer the criticism from Priebus.
“Tell him to come down and take a look at the good work we’re doing,” Biden said.