WASHINGTON -- President Bush's first address to Congress Tuesday night doubled its intended time to a near Clinton-like length of close to 50 minutes, but there was not a word said about global warming. What makes this significant is that the treacherous subject was actually touched on in an early speech draft, but then was omitted.
Word leaked Monday that Bush's planned address contained a single sentence advocating carbon dioxide emission controls. When decoded, it meant that the president was agreeing with Al Gore and the liberals that rising global temperatures are a menace and require radical solutions. That sent conservatives into a frenzy that apparently resulted in losing the sentence from the speech. But the issue is far from settled.
This unresolved conflict over the environment is part of a broader question concerning what kind of administration George W. Bush is heading. His Tuesday night speech, well delivered as are all his prepared speeches, avoided ideological rhetoric while advocating intensely conservative tax and Social Security proposals. The likes of Ted Kennedy and Charlie Rangel stood and applauded as the president recited a laundry list of socially desirable goals, but sat on their hands when he asked for a tax "refund" to the public.
Before putting in his pitch for tax reduction in a fight that will test the credibility of his presidency, Bush made clear he does not follow the Republican orthodoxy that government is the problem and not the solution. As part of this thesis, his speechwriters wrote a throwaway line advocating a "multi-pollutant strategy" on clean air and taking on the monumental task of regulating carbon dioxide.
Conservative activists tried to inundate Bush administration policymakers Monday with e-mails. "If you agree that CO2 is a threat," wrote one protester, "you accept the theory of catastrophic global warming."
On CNN's "Crossfire" Monday night, I asked Environmental Protection Administrator Christie Whitman about the issue and received a surprisingly unequivocal answer. "George Bush was very clear during the course of the campaign that he believes in a multi-pollutant strategy, and that includes CO2," said Whitman, "He has also been very clear that the science is good on global warming." She added that "introducing CO2 to the discussion" is an "important step" in confronting a "real problem."
That would come as a surprise to voters, who heard Republicans upbraid Democratic candidate Gore all through 2000 for swallowing the scientific predicates of global warming. "Maybe they didn't listen closely enough (to Bush), but he was very clear about that during the campaign," Whitman told me.
In fact, he was not that clear. Bush's only personal comment on global warming during the campaign was made in the Oct. 11 presidential debate. While asserting that "global warming needs to be taken very seriously," Bush turned to Gore and asked whether "some of the scientists" were not "changing their opinion a little bit on global warming."
However, Bush's proposed energy policy issued Oct. 16 shocked conservatives when it proposed mandatory reduction targets for "four main pollutants: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury and carbon dioxide." The Oil & Gas Journal called this "a Bush misstep on CO2," adding: "Regulation of CO2 as an air pollutant is a bad idea that belongs on the outer fringes of environmental extremism."
The "four pollutant strategy" is considered eco-extremism by conservatives but not by Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. At the administration's first Cabinet meeting, the assertive former Alcoa CEO distributed a paper he had delivered in March 1998 to a meeting of the Aluminum Assn. Calling for a government program at the level of the Manhattan Project to mobilize the government, O'Neill's paper said: "For these two issues -- nuclear holocaust and global climate change -- we may not get a second chance for it."
Nobody in the Cabinet suggested O'Neill was being alarmist, but just where the new administration stands on global warming is one of many questions left unanswered by Tuesday's speech. Where does Bush stand on government-imposed racial quotas? Does he really oppose a deeper tax cut? The president was lauded for his mastery in his Capitol Hill debut, but it would be nice to know whether he has bought into Christie Whitman's position.