Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Bush procrastinates, Obama toughens up

Breaking news: The Bush administration, having been told by another branch of government that it should face up to reality and deal rationally with an international crisis, has, in response, come up with a plan which ensures that the whole mess will be dumped in the lap of whoever who takes office in 2009.

But no, this is not about Iraq. This is about the global warming crisis, and the president’s latest procrastination strategy, which he unveiled late yesterday.

First, some essential background: Six weeks ago, on April 2, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Bush team over at the Environmental Protection Agency had broken the law by refusing to regulate the new-vehicle pollutants that contribute to global warming. The EPA had decreed back in 2003 that it would do nothing, contending that it lacked the authority to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and that, even if it had such authority, there was too much “scientific uncertainty” about the causes and effects of global warming.

But the high court majority wrote that the EPA had offered “no reasoned explanation for its refusal” to act, especially since the federal Clean Air Act defines “air pollutant” in the broadest possible terms, as any physical or chemical “substance or matter which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air.” The act also specifies that threats to climate and weather are to be viewed as issues worthy of EPA regulatory scrutiny. The act also specifies, in Section 202, that the EPA shall regulate car tailpipe emissions of any “air pollutant” that “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” The court majority also pointed out that there is now a scientific consensus that U.S. car emissions (heat-trapping gases, notably carbon dioxide) directly contribute to global warming. Therefore, the court ruled that if the EPA obeyed the law and regulated car emissions, such a move “would slow the pace of global emissions, no matter what happens elsewhere in the world.”

(The court majority clearly was not impressed with the EPA’s faith-based claims of “scientific uncertainty,” given the fact that the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences (in conjunction with its counterparts in Britain, China, Germany, and Japan), the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, the National Climactic Data Center, 928 peer-reviewed scientific papers, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Bush's own Climate Change Science Program have all concluded that man's role in global warming is irrefutable and that no such uncertainty exists.)

After the court ruling, there was mostly silence from the Bush team, although EPA chief Stephen Johnson did say that, because the decision was so “complex,” he didn’t want to be held to a specific timetable for compliance. (The Bush team clearly has an aversion to timetables.) But the suspense ended yesterday, when Bush himself announced the terms of his compliance. It can be boiled down to four words:

Run out the clock.

After successfully bottling up the issue in court for four years, the president has decided that he will keep the issue suspended in limbo for the final two years of his tenure. He directed the EPA to work with three other agencies (Agriculture, Energy, and Transportation) to come up with options for tougher new car fuel-efficiency standards by the end of 2008, and to “evaluate the benefits and costs” before deciding on the final rules. EPA chief Johnson hailed Bush’s move yesterday as “the first regulatory step to craft a proposal to control greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles,” but it doesn’t take a scientist to see what this “step to craft a proposal” is really all about.

It’s about doing as little as possible. The odds are overwhelming that Bush will be flying off to Crawford before the four agencies come up with anything substantive. And what better way to procrastinate than to put four agencies on one task, as opposed to ceding all deliberations to the EPA? All told, his environmental record is just one more burden that the ’08 Republican candidates will have to carry into the ’08 election.


Yet, despite the various GOP burdens, I still sense that voters will not elect a Democrat next year unless they are confident that the candidate is credible on national security. For most of the past four decades, Democrats have been successfully tagged by their opponents as softies, and success in ’08 hinges on whether the nominee can effectively communicate that he or she will not hesitate to take swift military action in defense of the American people.

By that measure, Barack Obama stumbled badly in the first Democratic candidate debate back on April 26. And he’s still trying to make amends.

Three weeks ago, he was asked this question: “If, God forbid a thousand times, while we were gathered here tonight, we learned that two American cities have been hit simultaneously by terrorists, and we further learned, beyond the shadow of a doubt, it had been the work of al Qaeda, how would you change the U.S. military stance overseas as a result?”

Here was his initial response: “Well, the first thing we’d have to do is make sure that we’ve got an effective emergency response, something that this administration failed to do when we had a hurricane in New Orleans.”

Uh…what about the U.S. military posture, senator? Obama never answered that. He went on to talk about how we needed good intelligence so that we could “take some action,” but that “what we can’t do is then alienate the world community based on faulty intelligence, based on bluster and bombast.”

Moments later, Hillary Clinton nailed the answer with sound-bite concision: “I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate.”

Words matter. Obama, as president, might well do what most presidents would do: explore all available military options. But in a debate, at a time when he is still introducing himself to the public, it was arguably not helpful to answer that question by talking about Katrina.

Which brings us to Obama’s appearance on ABC two days ago. Asked to defend his remarks at the April 26 debate, Obama insisted that he responded appropriately to the question. But this time he also said: “I don’t think there can be any doubt that I would strike swiftly, promptly and vigorously if there was an attack.”

He needed to get that on the record, because, fairly or not, the “wimp” image is one burden that the Democrats will carry into the ’08 election.