WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush was not only ratifying Bill Clinton's edicts in last week's run-up to Earth Day. Free market activists who consider themselves allies were told to sit down and shut up about the greening of the new president.
Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, found that out. He and other conservatives have tried to keep President Bush from appeasing environmentalists, getting him to renege on his campaign promise to regulate industrial emissions of carbon dioxide. But Smith has lost favor at the White House. Bush political strategist Karl Rove personally accused him of peddling false information that CO2 emissions control was advocated in an early draft of Bush's first speech to Congress. Rove also chided Smith's organization for bragging about changing the president's position.
Sniping at allies typifies how far off track the Bush White House has been on the environment in contrast to its generally competent performance. Lack of preparedness for the Left's assault when Bush began to roll back Clinton's eleventh hour rulings was followed by last week's dash for the green bandwagon.
Having suspended tougher regulations on arsenic levels in water without proper explanation, the president reversed course. He continued even after Earth Day, this week ratifying Clinton's ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. The appearance of retreat in the face of negative polls looked more like the failed presidency of the senior George Bush than Ronald Reagan's successful tenure.
Last week's rush toward Earth Day peaked Thursday at the White House Rose Garden in an event that bordered on parody. Flanked by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Christie Whitman, the president announced he will sign a dubious Clinton-drafted treaty banning toxic chemicals and declared: "Now a Republican administration will continue and complete the work of a Democratic administration. This is the way environmental policy should work."
More than rhetoric disappointed Bush supporters. Approval of Clinton's regulation on reporting lead content that will burden Bush's small business constituency was fiercely opposed by the Small Business Administration in an April 9 memo to the EPA: "We cannot recall in more than three decades of reviewing environmental regulations a more egregious example of a total disregard of the science."
Bush's OK of the Clinton edict barring development of wetlands angered the National Association of Home Builders, which plans to go to court against it. Joining in that lawsuit will be the National Federation of Independent Business, an integral part of the Bush coalition in last year's campaign.
Conservative business organizations and think tanks are not only unhappy with the substance of Bush's turnaround but feel they have been cut out of the process and cannot adequately express their views. In Congress, Republicans complain that the administration has devastated their strategy for coping with Clinton's leftover regulations.
Green activists who never have a good word for Bush's policies are finding entrance into the White House easier for them than for the president's friends. John Howard, a Democrat who advises Bush on the environment in Washington as he did in Austin, recently brought to the White House an ardent supporter of the Kyoto global warming accord previously repudiated by the president: Eileen Claussen of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Were they cooking up Bush's forthcoming proposals on global warming?
Howard is the likely source of Bush's ecologically extreme embrace of regulating carbon dioxide industrial emissions in last autumn's campaign speech at Saginaw, Mich. (not some anonymous interloper as suggested by top Bush aides). Just how sincere the president is in his disavowal of the Saginaw speech was cast in doubt last weekend, when Whitman told me on CNN that Bush reneged on CO2 only because opposition to it would endanger his proposed control of other industrial emissions.
Nobody has yet won or lost the presidency on the environment, but Bush's performance exposes a political vulnerability. The assault on his pro-economic growth positions generated polls showing trouble among suburban swing voters, which in turn led to his abandonment of friends and appeasement of enemies. Does that suggest a blueprint for neutering the Bush presidency?