Admitting the obvious, the Bush administration last week acknowledged that
the Bush campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions of power
plants was inconsistent with another Bush campaign promise, to boost
domestic energy production.
Predictably, the “environmental community” howled with outrage.
I don’t believe that American leaders should pay a
whole lot of attention to the never-ending howls of outrage from the
anti-energy activists. But neither do I believe that American leaders
should first give the appearance of accepting the position that carbon-based
fuels are bad, and then “discover” that they think otherwise once they are
safely in office. This cannot lead to good things.
I don’t think that Mr. Bush intentionally misled voters when he campaigned
on two clearly contradictory policies. And I advocated his decision not to
treat carbon dioxide as a pollutant. But I also think that his failure to
anticipate the need to pick between placating the alarmism of the global
warming crowd and satisfying the evidently burgeoning energy requirements of
the free American economy is revealing. It shows a disproportionate
confidence in the reliability of management techniques over the decisiveness
of argument and reasoning about evidence. It has demonstrated the kind of
trouble a leader can get into when he concentrates more on being pleasing
than on reasoning from principles to the correct policy choice.
President Bush’s letter explaining his decision states fairly well the
pragmatic reasons that regulation of carbon dioxide would be foolish: “At a
time when California has already experienced energy shortages, and other
Western states are worried about price and availability of energy this
summer, we must be very careful not to take actions that could harm
consumers. This is especially true given the incomplete state of scientific
knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change and the
lack of commercially available technologies for removing and storing carbon
dioxide.” In short, regulating carbon dioxide would be an economic disaster
and we don’t have much reason to think that it would be a good thing anyway.
It was as clear six months ago as it is today that there is no compelling
scientific evidence to support the claim that we are experiencing human-induced catastrophic global climate change. The scientific models positing
this thesis are problematic and deeply controversial among qualified
experts — political correctness notwithstanding. Certainly, any enthusiasm
for federal CO2 regulation is not only utterly premature, but likely to be
environmentally counterproductive. Why didn’t the Bush campaign simply say
so? But it was also as clear six months ago as it is today that any plan to
regulate carbon dioxide emissions would have draconian economic effects, and
that those effects would begin with a dramatic increase in the cost of
energy. Global warming true believers can reasonably ask why the president
didn’t notice the need to reconcile these facts until this week.
The two pledged policies were contradictory, and when events forced the
president to choose, he appears to have conducted a serious review and made
the right choice. My objection is to an apparently habitual disinclination
on the part of current political leadership to realize that policy choices
can be contradictory — and contradictory policy, because it is incoherent,
undermines responsible self-government. Such contradictions may not be
evident right away, particularly to politicians who are not as interested in
the principles from which policy choices arise as they are in the effort to
satisfy the desires of many groups of citizens. But when government pursues
actions which force it to contradict itself, it inevitably does violence to
any right understanding of either of the policy goals which are in conflict.
And when leaders give the impression that both sides of a policy dispute
will gain satisfaction, the losing side is set up for keen disappointment.
The comment of Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust,
was typical of such disappointment in the wake of the Bush decision: “So
much for an administration that was trying to appear to care about the
environment. The president has acknowledged that global warming is one of
the most important environmental issues we face, and one of his first acts
is to walk away from his most explicit environmental promise.” While I
think that global warming is not one of the most important environmental
issues we face, I certainly understand the frustration of those who do, and
believe that the president did as well.
How important is it for leaders to make clear from the beginning the
principles on which they will make decisions? I believe it is crucial to
successful statesmanship. A leader must be interested in making the right
case for policy, and in articulating principles that will enable those he
leads, and other leaders, to anticipate with confidence the decisions he
will make. It is a truism in foreign affairs that unpredictability in
diplomacy is dangerous, leading to miscalculations on the part of other
nations, and sometimes to war. In important ways this is just as true in
The “environmental community” is angrier today then they would have been if
President Bush had been clearer about his priorities from the beginning.
And whenever a leader responsible to the people postpones making such tough
choices, his eventual decisions all too often cannot even plausibly be
claimed to have the consent of the governed. Occasionally, no doubt, the
statesman is wise to guard the secret of his ultimate purpose, and the
relative ranking of his principles of policy choice. But generally he
should make the best case, early and often, for principles that can form the
basis for an informed judgment by the citizenry. Then he should choose
policy on the basis of such principles, and expect the citizens who elected
him to recognize those policies as the fruit of their own choice at the
President Bush has tended to keep his distance from such preemptive
explanations of policy. In the campaign, and in the early weeks of his
administration, he has avoided any suggestion that he is much encumbered by
the need to consult a systematic moral or political philosophy that would
impel him to certain conclusions, and thus to certain policies. Whatever
escape he has thus engineered from the political conflicts of an ideological
age has come at a price of which the environmentalist response to his
reversal on carbon dioxide is but a foretaste.
On tax cuts, the budget, abortion, and a host of other issues, policy
choices must be made, and reasons given for those choices. Perhaps more
accurately, reasons for those choices must themselves be chosen. The
President will eventually have to decide whether he is going to think about
taxes in terms of the static socialist concept of redistributive “fairness”
demanded by the Democrats, or in terms of the dynamic reality of a free
economy that will explode in wealth creation if government ceases to punish
those who do the creating. He will have to decide if he will challenge the
homosexual agenda with a more ringing statement of belief than he did in the
debates, in which he sandwiched the less than inspiring remark that “I just
happen to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman,” with multiple
protestations of his great “tolerance.” He will have to decide whether to
permit, as is apparently happening, diversity quotas in the choice of
nominees to the federal bench. And sooner or later, he will have to decide,
either in the current stem-cell “research” battle, or in subsequent debates,
whether he will defend the immutable principle of human equality from its
greatest assault — in the womb.
Mixed signals have been given by a president who does not naturally or
easily consider the fundamental reasons for policy choices. But when he
acts he will necessarily make political losers out of some people who had
thought he was on their side. The temptation for the losers to believe that
the president is moved more by political calculation than by public interest
may well grow.
Our founders declared to the world the reasons that impelled them to
political separation from England, and to revolution. Similar declarations
of principle by political leaders, wisely considered and wisely made, can do
much to maintain steadiness of purpose, prevent miscalculation by friend or
foe, and preserve a standard by which political decisions can be judged.
Consistency of principle provides insurance against the suggestion that
policy choices are determined by backroom pressure or financial interest.
Ultimately, the most important reason for political leaders to work hard to
clarify the principles by which they will make decisions is that such work
is essential to preserving the leader’s own understanding of those
principles. This time, the president’s miscalculation has resulted only in
frustrating the anti-energy lobby and embarrassing EPA head Christie Todd
Whitman, neither of which is necessarily a bad thing. But next time there
may be a real, even large, cost. The key to avoiding it is integrity — the
coherent unity of the whole — in the policy choices of the Bush
administration. Such integrity can only come from habitual adherence to
principle, deeply pondered and proactively and carefully applied to the
issues of the day.
It is time for the president to be a “uniter, not a
divider” of the political choices of his administration.