TCS Daily

The Politics of Electoral Destruction

By Nick Schulz - February 22, 2002 12:00 AM

When the President's brilliant Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, R. Glenn Hubbard, took to the pages of the New York Times to argue for the administration's new proposal on climate change, he wrote of an initiative he felt was "likely to move us, at last, beyond arguments at the extremes and toward real action against climate change."

Some of those making "arguments at the extremes," in the administration's view, are environmental groups and sympathizers that have been critical of President Bush's decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. So what did they think of this new effort, this "real action against climate change"?

  • "A green con trick." - Friends of the Earth

  • "A wish list for big polluters." - Greenpeace

  • "Another faith-based initiative." - National Environmental Trust

  • "We will see many more premature deaths." - NRDC

  • "Phantom reductions." - Public Citizen

  • "Sticking to the polluting policies [of] the energy industry." - Sierra Club

  • "A valentine to the coal and oil industry." - World Wildlife Fund

  • "Trivial in scope and will have virtually no effect." -- Paul Krugman

  • "An effort to cloak business as usual in some finery." - Pew Center

  • "All procrastination and no progress." -- Presidential aspirant, Sen. John Kerry

  • "A weak policy." - Former presidential aspirant Al Gore.

  • "A declaration of passivity, stagnation, and unilateralism." - Sen. Joe Lieberman

So much for moving beyond the extremes.

But Hubbard did a peculiar thing when he made the administration's case for a new climate change proposal. Not only did he dismiss the arguments of extreme environmental and green groups calling for massive reductions in energy use. He dismissed the skeptics in the climate change debate, too. This was an odd and unfortunate step to take. After all, the scientific and economic case that the Kyoto Protocol is, in the president's now famous words, "fatally flawed" had been made patiently and tirelessly for years by skeptics hoping to raise sound science above alarmism. In other words, it has been made by some of those Hubbard now characterizes as making "arguments at the extremes."

But the administration seemed to forget that. "For too long," Hubbard wrote, "the loudest voices in the climate change debate have either called for large emission reductions in the next 10 years or ignored the fact that climate change is a real risk."

Hubbard doesn't spell out exactly what he means by saying it is a "fact" that "climate change is a real risk" and he cites no evidence to support the claim. That may have been due to space limitations on the newspaper page. More likely it is because the evidence he would need to support this claim simply doesn't bear up under close scrutiny.

But while the climate change risk that Hubbard discusses lacks justification, another serious risk - a political risk - is worth considering in this decision.

When I asked Almanac of American Politics Editor Michael Barone to comment on the politics of this Bush White House decision, he discussed it explicitly in terms of risks. "The administration is obviously aware that the issue on which the president is weakest vis a vis the Democrats is the environment. So undoubtedly a calculation was made that it would be risky to do nothing."

And to be fair to the administration, it has been under heavy pressure to appear to be doing something, anything, to address the fears of climate change, no matter the lack of reality in their substance. That said, if the administration's decision was purely political, why was it was so quick to criticize its traditional support base on climate issues? Why not just admit that it's a political calculation; that they were merely responding to the concerns of the American people? Instead the administration belittled the many respected scientists and economists who have questioned undue fears over climate change.

Barone thinks there could be some potential political upside to the move. "This plan gives some soft Gore voters some reason to think well of Bush -- which they're disposed to do anyway, because of his handling of the war."

Yet, the question remains about the potential political damage done in coal and steel states that helped Bush achieve the margin of victory he needed in 2000 and hoped he might protect their interests against environmental extremists. It was coal-rich West Virginia - home to liberal Senate Democrats Bob Byrd and Jay Rockefeller - that gave Bush the electoral votes he needed to put him over the top.

Barone seems to think that it might have been worth the risk. "Voluntary emissions trading should not be terribly risky in the coal-and-steel belt which Karl Rove has been targeting since 1999; it's not likely to result in dramatic shutdowns of steel factories or electric power plants," he said.

I hope Barone is right. I fear he will be wrong. Why? Well, the quotations above from green groups and politicians should provide an indicator of what environmentalists think of voluntary emissions trading. So they likely won't be satisfied with the result - and will press for mandatory absolute reductions in the form of a cap. The only difference now is that the administration is putting in place the necessary bureaucratic architecture to make a mandatory cap-and-trade system possible.

One administration insider was incredulous at the decision. "I don't know what they were thinking. This really hurts us in West Virginia and Ohio. And we can forget about making progress in Pennsylvania." The administration seems to be banking on the good will the president has justifiably earned for his handling of the war against terrorists. But to bank on that is a big risk - as another successful wartime president found out a decade ago.

Hubbard began his justification of the administration's program by saying that "The president set the goal of an 18 percent reduction over the next 10 years in greenhouse gas intensity - the ratio of emissions to economic activity - not an arbitrary goal for curbs on total emissions." But the administration has developed an equally "arbitrary" scheme. After all, why 18 percent? Why not 5 or 15 or 50 percent? But what's not arbitrary is the risk they've decided to take with an extraordinarily precarious electoral college situation. It's a calculated judgment. They seem to have weighed the appearance of inaction against complete capitulation - and this is the compromise they've come up with. It may or may not prove to be good politics. Either way, it's certainly bad policy. And only good policies produce lasting political gains.

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