TCS Daily

Offense Wins Ballgames

By Nick Schulz - June 21, 2002 12:00 AM

Last week... the Bush administration finally admitted it has a climate change problem. In a new EPA report to the United Nations, the Administration said: 'There is general agreement that the observed warming is real and has been particularly strong within the past 20 years. Human-induced warming [is] expected to continue through the 21st century.' This is not news... What is news is that President Bush has finally admitted it... Yet despite the frightening predictions in... the EPA report... President Bush fails to offer a plan for action. The Administration's EPA report notes that we will simply have to learn to "adapt" to climate change. To me, this is an incredible abdication of responsibility and provides further justification for the Senate to step in where the President won't."

-- Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA

Former Education Secretary William Bennett is fond of saying that in Washington you are either on offense or on defense, so you better spend your time playing as much offense as possible. The veracity of that little bit of wisdom was on display this week in a Senate hearing room where President Bush was on the receiving end of a drubbing partly of his own making.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Jim Jeffords, the Vermont independent, held hearings this week on his pet bill, S. 556, the so-called Clean Power Act. The bill is a kind of "Kyoto-lite" designed to restrict the nation's energy use. Specifically it is designed to reduce the emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, and carbon dioxide coming from power plants.

Several of the members in the hearing room treated Bush like a piƱata (see Sen. Feinstein's remarks above). No surprise there. It's politics as usual on Capitol Hill.

But the delicious irony (or hideous irony if you are a Bushie) is that the Bush administration handed its opponents the stick with which they are now pulverizing him - the Bush administration's recent EPA report to the United Nations on global climate change.

That report said, among other things, that some of the major questions of climate science were settled; that the planet was warming significantly; that the warming was attributable to human causes ("anthropogenic"), and that economic growth would exacerbate the warming phenomenon.

Now, when the report came out, there was all sorts of back and forth chatter about whether there was anything really, truly "new" in it and whether it was worth getting exercised about. Reasonable people can disagree over its newness, what is undeniably not new, however, is that the same old games are being played in the nation's capital and that the administration's opponents -- as should have been expected -- seized this report and took the offensive with it.

Political Ping Pong

When it comes to environmental science and politics, this administration has lately been playing defense that would make Steve Sax blush -- a series of missteps, errant throws, and missed plays at critical junctures. The political and intellectual uncertainty surrounding the Bush administration that has accompanied the release of its EPA report is alarming:

  • When the report came out at the beginning of June, it was widely interpreted that the United States had seen the proverbial light on the anthropogenic nature of climate change and that the White House was shifting from an earlier position.

  • But then on June 5, President Bush blithely dismissed the report coming from "the bureaucracy."

  • Then his EPA administrator Christie Whitman took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal on June 10 to defend the report her boss pooh poohed. "The administration's Climate Action Report as a whole does nothing to undercut the president's policy." Of course, this begged the question: Why, then, was the president so quick to distance himself from the report?

  • One reason he was quick to distance himself may have been because, as we learned the next day, on June 11, from the president's press secretary, Bush didn't read the report.

  • And then on June 12 -- two days after she publicly defended her EPA's report the president didn't read -- we found out that Whitman had no idea about the report before it was issued, saying "I knew about it when I read it in the paper."

Dizzy yet? This political Texas two-stepping is extraordinary.

But let's give Whitman a break. After all, one informed source tells TCS that it was not unexpected that Whitman would pass the report on to the UN considering that the White House Council on Environmental Quality, chaired by James Connaughton, raised no objection to the report -- after reviewing it for 3 to 4 months! So while Whitman can be faulted for not understanding the science or the politics involved in the global climate change debate (and for not knowing about an important report being released from her office), the responsibility for this report and the subsequent damage to the administration actually goes right into the White House.

Recently at TCS we suggested that the administration's June climate change shuffle meant one of two things regarding the president: either he has no idea what was going on in his administration; or, to the extent that he does, he just doesn't care.

But now it appears what's happening is more interesting than that. Since the decision to release this EPA report - handing this new piƱata stick to partisan Democrats - goes right into the White House, that means Bush has no control over not just his vast administrative apparatus, (which is distressing enough), but that he has no control over his very own White House.*

Meanwhile, as the administration spins itself in and out of jams of its own making, the momentum builds against it as their opponents seize the offensive.

"So, to maintain some momentum on this critical issue," Jeffords said at his hearing this week, "and without any counter proposal to the Clean Power Act which could make for fruitful discussion, the Committee will proceed to markup S.556 at the end of this month."

Politics ain't beanbag, another old saying goes, and it sure ain't baseball, either, where defense wins ballgames. After some promising early signs, the administration is getting rolled on environmental policies and will continue to find itself reeling on its heels in the months ahead if it doesn't get its act together and realize what's going on. The only way to shift momentum is to go on offense. The first step it can take is to nip this Jeffords energy suppression bill in the bud.

URL Next Door - This week's distinction goes to a herd of nerds and the merits of independent film. It's also an homage to the Ziegfeld theatre in New York, which this former New Yorker holds close to his heart. Find it here. All you need to know is: "Star Wars Stratego!"

* There is final possibility that we will be exploring at a later date which is that the administration is attempting to play some clever political quid pro quo games with green groups with the hope that they will win votes from suburban soccer moms and others for whom the environment is ostensibly a major concern.


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