On NSR, Bush Should Ignore Knee-Jerk Opposition from Left

Published March 1, 2003

As was demonstrated by the November election, there aren’t many issues that give Democrats an edge over Republicans. So the Democrats are trying to make the most of the few they do have, including the environment. This helps explain the grossly out-of-proportion attacks against the Bush administration’s recent changes to the Clean Air Act’s New Source Review (NSR) program.

Spinning New Source Review

NSR has long been recognized as the most problematic part of the Clean Air Act. The new rule’s modest reforms represent the culmination of years of bipartisan efforts to fix it.

But that is not the way the story has been spun. The New York Times and other left-leaning media outlets editorialized against the NSR reforms with rhetoric so overheated it gave the impression Bush had just repealed the entire Clean Air Act. The Washington Post broadened the attack, claiming the administration’s recent environmental actions may be “a harbinger of ever-more aggressive rollbacks of environmental regulations next year, when Republicans will control Capitol Hill.”

But the media attacks were mild compared with those from several 2004 Democratic Presidential hopefuls, who outdid each other denouncing the rule:

  • Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina said “this gift to polluters promises more smog, more soot, and more premature deaths,” all to be laid at the doorstep of a President who “has rolled back the Clean Air Act’s protections.”
  • Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut called on EPA Administrator Christie Whitman to resign over the matter.
  • Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts went even further, stating, “we don’t just need a new EPA administrator, we need a new President.”

Few listening to all of this could have imagined that the Bush final rule differs little from NSR reform proposals first announced in 1996 … by the Clinton EPA.

History Lesson

If the Presidential hopefuls think they can ride a green wave to the White House, they had better take a look at history.

The President who polled the worst on environmental issues by far was Ronald Reagan, and his first term was racked with environmental scandal. His first EPA administrator and his first secretary of the Interior–the two highest environmental posts in the federal government–were forced out of office in heavily publicized fashion. And, though Reagan was not nearly the enemy of the environment his critics contended, he did little to try to appease the knee-jerk opposition from the left.

Politically, all of this cost Reagan nothing as he sailed to reelection in 1984. The lesson for Bush on environmental policy is clear: Do what you believe is right, and don’t sweat the inevitable and predictable criticisms. Indeed, Bush could accomplish a lot by jettisoning the tired command-and-control approach favored by the environmental old guard, and replacing it with more innovative and promising solutions.

But there is also a cautionary lesson Bush can learn from his father. Rather than follow Reagan’s lead, the elder Bush tried to appease the environmental establishment with gifts like the massive 1990 rewrite of the Clean Air Act. That tactic garnered little if any new support and did not help him at all in the 1992 elections.

No matter what it does, the current administration will be attacked by Democrats and their allies as anti-green. It remains to be seen whether the administration will respond with an alternative environmental vision or with futile attempts at “me too” appeasement.

Ben Lieberman is a senior policy analyst with the Washington, DC-based Competitive Enterprise Institute.