The Feeling of a Coup
By Anthony Lewis
BOSTON -- We are learning something these days about the power of a willful president. Without a popular mandate, George W. Bush is making radical changes that will have long-term consequences for this country and the world. He is making them in a hurry, and for the moment there are no checks or balances to stop him.
Day after day headlines tell us of fundamental policy reversals. Mr. Bush spurns the global effort, going back to the first Bush presidency, to reduce global warming. He calls off talks with North Korea about its missiles, casting doubt on the whole attempt to ease relations between South and North. He proposes to rethink U.S. aid programs that help dismantle former Soviet nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. A string of Bush administration decisions has halted steps to protect the environment. Arsenic in drinking water, roads in national forests and so on: limits are going to be "restudied."
The reasons given for the environmental decisions have been almost insultingly unconvincing. Christie Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said she was withdrawing the arsenic limit set in a Clinton administration regulation because it had not had "thorough review" in terms of "sound science." In fact, the limit was proposed by highly regarded scientists after extended study.
Mr. Bush, explaining to senators why he opposed the Kyoto protocol on global warming, spoke of the "incomplete state of scientific knowledge of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change." Of course the science is incomplete on global warming, as it is on most subjects. But virtually all scientific experts support the theory that greenhouse gas emissions contribute to warming.
Contempt for public opinion as well as for science is evident in the environmental decisions. A striking example is what has happened to a Clinton regulation that prohibited road-building in about a third of the national forests.
The head of the Forest Service, Michael P. Dombeck, resigned the other day and sent a letter to his boss, Ann M. Veneman, the secretary of agriculture. He respectfully urged her not to abandon the ban on roads. "Doing so," he wrote, "would undermine the most extensive multi- year environmental analysis in history, a process that included over 600 public meetings and generated 1.6 million comments, the overwhelming majority of which supported protecting roadless areas."
Mr. Dombeck's plea is not likely to move the Bush administration. It postponed the effective date of the road-building regulation for 60 days for further review. And in the meantime its lawyers have not defended the regulation in a lawsuit brought against it by the Boise Cascade timber company and the state of Idaho.
The American public would almost certainly vote to protect roadless parts of the national forests, as it would to reduce the amount of arsenic in water. But the public is not the audience that concerns Mr. Bush and his appointees. They are out to please the interests that supported and financed his campaign: timber companies, mining companies and the rest. Nor is Mr. Bush moved by the arguments of respected Republican elders. As he ordered a review of the program for dismantling Soviet weapons, former Senator Howard Baker - whom he has named ambassador to Japan - was telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the program should be funded in full.
The Bush motto, a Washington quip has it, is "Do it my way or no way." That catches the willful quality of these first months. But there is more to the story than that.
This is the most radical administration in living American memory. I use the word deliberately. Today's right calls itself "conservative," but it is not that. Conservatives want to conserve. That is why Teddy Roosevelt started the national parks and the conservation movement. George W. Bush and his people are driven by right-wing ideology to an extent not remotely touched by even the Reagan administration. And we haven't seen the half of it. As Mr. Dombeck said of opening the national forests to road-building, the decisions "will have implications that will last many generations."
All this from a man who ran as a "compassionate conservative," concealing his hard-edged ideology, and who could not get half the voters to vote for him even in that guise.