TCS Daily

Say It Ain't So, George

By James K. Glassman - June 3, 2002 12:00 AM

Say it isn't so, George.

Today, Americans learned from a front page story in The New York Times that, "in a stark shift,...the administration for the first time mostly blames human actions for recent global warming. It says the main culprit is the burning of fossil fuels that send heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere."

In the past, President Bush properly noted that, while the earth had warmed at its surface by one degree Fahrenheit over the past century, scientists were still uncertain what caused the warming and what would happen in the century ahead. In addition, the administration urged the weighing of potential benefits against real-life costs -- which could run to $300 billion or more annually. Bush encouraged more research before drawing catastrophic conclusions.

But now, as a result of the new report, which was sent to the United Nations, the stage is set for an inevitable government-run program to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by cutting energy use. And cutting energy use means reducing the rate of economic growth. There's no other way. No wonder the stock market has been falling lately.

By accepting the basic premise of extreme environmentalists, the president will ultimately be forced to accept the major content of the same treaty that he rejected a little over a year ago as "fatally flawed": the Kyoto Protocol, signed by then-Vice President Al Gore in 1997 but never ratified by the U.S. Senate, which instead rejected it before signing by a 95-0 vote.

Bush's about-face, however, fits a pattern. One by one, he has abandoned the principles that attracted conservatives to him in the first place:

"What's left of the conservative agenda that has not been offered up to Democrats?" said Rush Limbaugh today on his national radio program. Let's see:

Free Trade: In order to protect inefficient steel producers and try to win votes in Rust Belt states, Bush agreed to protective tariffs against imports. At every turn now, his attempts to get Europeans and Asians to drop their trade barriers are being met with (accurate) cries of hypocrisy.

Farm Bill: To pander to farmers, he agreed to a bill which, as the Associated Press put it last month, "will shower billions of dollars in new subsidies on political battleground states and scrap a 1996 law that was intended to make growers less dependent on government." The reforms of six years ago marked one of the great achievements of the late Republican Congress.

Spending: Farm subsidies will rise 80 percent under the new bill, but that's hardly surprising since the President -- in nearly every other area of the federal budget -- has decided to abandon fiscal discipline. Surpluses have turned to deficits in the years ahead.

Campaign Finance: In the wake of the Enron scandal, Bush signed a new campaign-finance law that would hurt his own party, enhance the power of organized labor and liberal special interests and limit free political choice.

Education: To get his education bill passed, Bush dropped the most important reform: vouchers. Instead, in league with Sen. Ted Kennedy, he has helped entrench and empower the federal education bureaucracy.

What's going on? It is hard to say. These steps aren't effective even as cynical political maneuvers. Look at the reactions....

Conservatives: Bush's base is becoming demoralized. No, hard-core Republicans won't vote for a Democrat for president, but if Bush gives up on principles, they won't campaign hard for his re-election either.

Liberals: Will environmentalists be won over by the president's about-face on Kyoto? Hardly. In fact, after effectively silencing them with his strong stand, he has now energized them. They have a strong logical argument to make: If warming is as bad as Bush says it is, then strong remedies are necessary, not the soft stuff he proposes. (Said a headline today on, Bush to Earth: Drop Dead.") Protectionists won't want to stop with steel. They now have ammunition for other fights. The same with campaign reformers, farmers and big spenders.

Independents: Will voters on the fence be drawn to Bush now that he has flip-flopped on Kyoto and signed a farm bill? I doubt it. Bush's greatest asset was his self-confidence, his strong advocacy of principle, his almost ingenuous belief (like Reagan) in doing the right thing. By going wobbly, he impresses no one -- least of all the soccer moms and blue-collar dads who, most of all, want to see a president who knows where he stands and defends what he believes.

So why?

Bush may be suffering from Front-Runner Disease. Out ahead for 2004, Bush does not want to blow his lead by opening himself up to criticism from any quarter: environmentalists, good-government types, protectionists, farmers. He now has an answer for each of them.

He was better off running as an underdog. Back then, all he knew was what he believed in. That's the kind of president Americans want.

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