TCS Daily

Triangulator in Chief

By Duane D. Freese - February 21, 2002 12:00 AM

Is the Bush administration in its Clear Skies and climate change proposals practicing that old Clinton administration trick, triangulation?

You remember triangulation, don't you? It was the name Democratic pollster and political strategist Dick Morris gave to a tactic he encouraged Clinton to use after the Democrats lost both Houses of Congress in 1994.

Garry Wills noted it came from sailing maneuver of shifting course to tack with the wind but to eventually get to a place you wanted to go. Morris, himself, liked to think of it as Hegelian "thesis-antithesis-synthesis," by which from two competing ideas a better one emerges. GOP cynics would argue that triangulation amounted to Clinton's stealing their better ideas and parading it as his own "third way."

There is likely some truth in all the positions. But the greatest may lie in that triangulation as practiced by Clinton worked for him - and the country - only when the idea he was stealing or distilling had some merit. That certainly was the case with welfare reform with its emphasis on work and greater personal responsibility. There was truly some worthwhile there, there. By contrast, the Bush administration in its emissions proposals last week - particularly its "voluntary" plan for dealing with carbon dioxide emissions - appears only to have only latched onto its opponents' hot air.

President Bush last year wisely rejected the flawed Kyoto protocol because to achieve its CO2 and other greenhouse gas emission reduction limits would have required cutting fossil fuel use here by a fifth over the next 10 years. That would reduce U.S. economic output by $400 billion a year and wipe out 5 million U.S. jobs. The fact that Kyoto required no similar reductions from developing nations such as China, the second largest greenhouse gas emitter, and India, the sixth largest, was plainly unfair to American workers.

But the accord also was scientifically flawed as well. There is tremendous doubt in the scientific community whether anything man does really will influence the weather very much, especially when compared to natural forces, including the sun. Even proponents of Kyoto recognize that the protocols implementation will do virtually nothing to lower global temperatures by the end of this century. Indeed, the untested climate models claiming Comparing the difference between business as usual and compared with doing nothing, Kyoto would have cut average global temperatures less than 0.5 degrees F - about the temperature shift you get crossing the street.

Rather than standing upon that high economic and scientific ground, though, the Bush administration decided it had to do something.

It calls its policy "an alternative to Kyoto." The EPA website notes: "Rather than making drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that would put millions of Americans out of work and undermine our ability to make long-term investments in clean energy - as the Kyoto Protocol would have required - the President's growth-based approach will accelerate the development of new technologies and encourage partnerships on climate change issues with the developing world."

Well, how will this work? To achieve the goal of an 18% reduction in greenhouse gas intensity (not emissions) over the next decade, the administration has set up a "voluntary" system of measuring, recording and reporting of greenhouse gas emissions by industry. Those who "volunteer" for the program will receive credit for their efforts at reducing greenhouse gas intensity if a decade from now the government decides to put in an greenhouse gas emissions' trading system as part of an effort to reduce emissions.

To kick it off, EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman on Wednesday unveiled a "Climate Leaders" program. The program celebrates companies that "promising to meet a higher standard than other companies in their sector - are showing true leadership as environmental stewards."

The companies -- including FPL Group, General Motors, Holcim, Interface, Lockheed Martin, Miller Brewing Co., Norm Thompson Outfitters, S.C. Johnson & Son, Cinergy, Bethlehem Steel and PSEG -- "are providing an example to everyone that we all must do our share to address the effects of. climate change - and we must start now as they have," Whitman said.

In actuality, we have no choice than to "address the effects of climate change," we do that every day when we check the outside temperature and decide whether to put on a coat or not gases is ever put in place.

But the pretense here is that these companies and the president's plan provide a better way to address the issue of climate change.

It is the "third way," Clintonian triangulation at its worst.

R. Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, in a column in The New York Times put the opposing forces to the presidents plan this way: "For too long, 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."

The president's approach is pure common sense and reasonableness, Hubbard argues. It is a "focus on a reasonable approach to slow, stop then reverse growth in greenhouse gas emissions; don't wreck the economy in the process, and adjust future policy in response to scientific and technical progress."

Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer likewise attempted to triangulate the president's plan to reasonableness when the message was first announced: "In terms of what the President has announced today on global warming, if we're getting any indications thus far from various constituency groups, it's a classic case of where some in the environmental community say the President doesn't go far enough, and many in the business community say the President is going too far. I think that's probably a good indication that the President may have gotten it just right."

But what has he really gotten?

Those who've opposed implementation of the Kyoto protocol haven't done so because they "ignored the risks of climate change." On the contrary. They have studied the issue and found the claims of the calamatologists about climate change overblown. And what they oppose is taking steps that will do nothing really to halt any global warming that is occurring, but does great violence either to the economy or to the political process.

By creating a voluntary system for tracking and potentially trading emissions permits in greenhouse gases, the administration does nothing that will really effect climate, but does plenty to create political support for an emissions trading scheme. Every business that has tracked and earned potential credits at some point has self-interest in trying to cash them in. And that can only happen if strict limits are put on emissions - limits that would cost Americans jobs and income.

Indeed, by creating this plan and conceding climate change is a risk - despite the lack of scientific evidence that it actually is - the administration creates uncertainty about investments in new coal-fired power plants. As coal is the most abundant U.S. fuel, that does damage to the nation's efforts to achieve energy independence, as well as to those who've put billions into developing clean coal technology.

In short, by triangulating against his business, political and scientific supporters as Clinton did against liberal Democrats, the president risks losing support and enervating his political base.

For the great risk of triangulation when misapplied and when attempted without a clear goal is that it merely leaves the administration adrift.

In Clinton's case, his continuous triangulation on issues great and small led George Stephanopoulos to tell Bob Woodward: ''What you see is where you stand and where you're looking at him. He will put one facet toward you, but that is only one facet.''

In short, like a prism, what you see is not necessarily what you get. For Bush, whose strength as president is being what he seems - honest and straightforward - such triangulating as the administration is taking on climate change is a dangerous tack to take.


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