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Bush's Great Debate -- With Himself

By Sam Parry
March 2, 2004

Borrowing from George W. Bush’s favorite new joke about the Democratic debates, one could say that the Republican Party’s presidential choice is featuring a wide variety of opinions – favoring action on global warming and doing nothing; calling for a balanced federal budget and charting a future of endless deficits; advocating a “humble” foreign policy that decries “nation-building” and running a foreign policy that is arrogant and deeply involved in devising how other countries govern themselves.

The punch-line of that joke would go: And the Republican debate covers the opinions of just one candidate, George W. Bush.

 

Of course, Bush has used his version of this knee-slapper to mock Democratic Sen. John Kerry for supposedly flip-flopping on issues. But the joke could play as well against Bush, who sold himself to the voters as one thing in 2000 and performed quite differently in office.

 

The consequences of Bush’s policies are also grim. They are forcing painful choices for the United States in the near future, from potential worldwide disorder caused by climate change, to a $6.9 trillion federal debt by 2014, to unprecedented levels of anti-Americanism worldwide.

 

Greenhouse Effect

 

Global warming represented Bush’s first major flip-flop. In a clear campaign promise on September 29, 2000, Bush proposed regulating carbon dioxide as one of "four main pollutants" released into the environment by the burning of fossil fuels at power plants. Coming as the campaign was entering its final stages, the Bush pledge undercut Al Gore’s advantage among pro-environmental voters. It also boosted Bush’s image as a “compassionate conservative” who could appeal to important suburban swing voters. Even some environmentalists praised Bush’s carbon-dioxide initiative.

 

But two months after taking office, Bush suddenly jettisoned the carbon-dioxide pledge. Bending to the wishes of the energy industry and its lobbyists, Bush pulled the rug out from under his Environmental Protection Agency director, Christie Whitman. She had believed that Bush meant what he said during the campaign and was stunned to learn in March 2001 that the initiative had been scrapped. [For an insider account of Bush’s maneuver from former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, see Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty.]

 

The reasons for Bush's change of heart on regulating carbon dioxide pollution have not been widely reported. A pivotal moment came on March 1, 2001, when Haley Barbour, the former Chairman of the Republican National Committee and current governor from Mississippi, sent a memo to Vice President Dick Cheney. At the time, Barbour was a highly paid lobbyist for Southern Company, America's second largest electric utility corporation.

 

In the memo, Barbour warned "A moment of truth is arriving." Barbour ominously questioned "whether environmental policy still prevails over energy policy." A few days later, Bush had a change of heart on regulating carbon dioxide as one of four pollutants.

 

According to campaign contributions data, fundraising may have also played a role. In the 2000 and 2004 campaigns combined, Bush has raised more than $1 million from the electric utility industry alone, part of nearly $6 million Bush has raised in both cycles from the energy/natural resources sector as a whole. [FEC data available on openscrets.org]

 

Bush’s reneging on his global-warming promises drew little criticism from the Washington press corps, which was still enamored of the new president who supposedly was bringing honor and dignity back to the White House. But Bush’s inaction on carbon dioxide and his repudiation of the Kyoto Treaty on global warming have combined to push the world four more years closer to potentially catastrophic consequences.

 

A recent study prepared for the Pentagon is warning U.S. policy-makers that the growing momentum of climate change could provoke an abrupt transformation of weather patterns, followed by severe economic and political dislocations, in the near – rather than distant – future.

 

The potential results include famine, drought, flooding of coastal cities, violent storms and ultimately war between desperate populations, according to the Pentagon study entitled “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security.” It is written by Peter Schwartz, a CIA consultant and former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall, who works for the Global Business Network.

 

“Nations with the resources to do so may build virtual fortresses around their countries, preserving resources for themselves,” the study said. “Less fortunate nations especially those with ancient enmities with their neighbors, may initiate in struggles for access to food, clean water or energy. Unlikely alliances could be formed as defense priorities shift and the goal is resources for survival rather than religion, ideology or national honor.”

 

This nightmare scenario envisions overall warming trends that will melt ice caps, flood low-lying areas and alter moderating ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream, putting the U.S. East Coast and Northern Europe into a deep freeze. Some coastal cities would become unlivable because of flooding. Large swaths of some countries, such as the Netherlands, could disappear entirely.

 

“Conflicts over land and water use are likely to become more severe – and more violent,” the study said. “Humanity would revert to its norm of constant battles for diminishing resources, which the battles themselves would further reduce even beyond the climatic effects. Once again warfare would define human life.”

 

The Schwartz-Randall study was commissioned by Andrew Marshall, an 82-year-old Pentagon adviser who heads the secretive Office of Net Assessment and is renowned for detecting future military trends and strategic threats. Though the study does not represent official Pentagon policy, it marks a recognition by military planners that global warming has significance beyond environmental and economic concerns, that national security is in play. [For more on the report, see the London Observer, Feb. 22, 2004]

 

During Campaign 2000, Bush flirted with carbon-dioxide regulation as a means to address the global warming issue without endorsing the Kyoto Treaty, which demanded reductions in greenhouse emissions by developed nations. Yet after gaining the White House, Bush retreated from his campaign promise and has offered little since, beyond promises of more study.

 

Red Ink

 

Campaign-2000 Bush also has been odds with President Bush over another issue of great consequence: the federal budget. Four years ago, the budget debate revolved around what to do with the federal surplus that had emerged in the final years of the Clinton administration and held open the prospects of a debt-free U.S. government.

 

Then, the Congressional Budget Office was projecting a $5.6 trillion budget surplus over the 10 years ending in 2011. To Bush, this meant that the American people could have their cake and eat it, too. While planning to pay off the federal debt, Bush also promised a $1.3 trillion tax cut to return some of the money to the taxpayers. Other funds, he said, would be available to add personal investment accounts to the Social Security system.

 

Whatever would come of these proposals, Bush made an unequivocal pledge not to raid the Social Security trust fund to pay for deficits in other parts of the federal budget. “We’re going to set aside all the payroll taxes for one thing, Social Security,” Bush said in a stump speech four days before the presidential election.

 

Over a little more than three years, however, the balanced-budget promises have gone by the boards. Bush has pulled more than $350 billion out of Social Security surpluses to pay for discretionary government spending. Overall prospects for the future look even bleaker. With record deficits replacing record surpluses and the Baby Boom generation nearing retirement age, the current Social Security surpluses are expected to join the rest of the federal government in a bath of red ink.

 

Whereas three years ago, the CBO was forecasting $5.6 trillion in surpluses over 10 years, the CBO now sees deficits extending over the next decade and beyond. Even without considering the costs for the Iraq War, the CBO said Bush’s tax and spending plans will add $2.75 trillion to the national debt, a stunning $8.4 trillion turnaround from the projected surpluses at the end of the Clinton administration.

 

Rather than the fleeting worry of 2000-2001 of how to cope with a debt-free U.S. government, the American people now will be left to grapple with a ballooning publicly held debt that will have increased 67 percent to almost $7 trillion. This figure is on top of the money owed to the Social Security trust fund and other off-budget accounts. Altogether, the total U.S. debt, which was declining for the first time in a generation when Bush took office, is expected to grow from $5.7 trillion in January 2001 to more than $11 trillion a decade from now.[Washington Post, Feb. 28, 2004 and CBO estimates.]

 

Bush has justified these reversals of fortune by citing the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, costs from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a weaker-than-expected economy. However, the biggest holes in the budget were poked by Bush’s two rounds of tax cuts. According to the new CBO estimates, an additional $737 billion in debt will result simply from Bush’s demand that his temporary tax cuts be made permanent.

 

As the federal budget has ruptured, Bush has dismayed even some conservative supporters with his plans for big-ticket government projects, such as returning men to the moon and then on to Mars. Since 2000, federal outlays have climbed almost 21 percent, from $1.79 trillion to $2.16 trillion. The continuing war in Iraq is certain to add tens of billions of dollars more, although the Bush administration has refused to present the bill until after the November elections.

 

Humble No More

 

Possibly Bush’s most striking departure from his rhetoric as a candidate has been in the area of foreign policy. During the campaign, he called for a “humble” foreign policy and disparaged President Clinton’s interventions to bring stability to international hot spots as fuzzy-headed “nation-building.”

 

Initially, Bush seemed to be following his rhetoric. He chose to disengage from many of Clinton’s initiatives. Bush turned his back on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, rebuffed South Korea’s efforts to reduce tensions with North Korea, and shifted money and attention away from counter-terrorism projects to iconic Republican initiatives, such as Ronald Reagan’s missile defense system.

 

Bush’s attitude toward foreign policy changed dramatically after the Sept. 11 attacks. From a disdain for foreign entanglements, Bush pronounced himself the “war president” and vowed that his administration would view all issues through that prism.

 

But much of Bush’s aggressive strategy has boomeranged. Bush’s division of the world into two camps – either with the United States or with the terrorists – turned post-Sept. 11 sympathy toward the U.S. into unparalleled hostility. The new worldwide ideology of anti-Americanism was cemented by Bush’s defiance of the United Nations and his invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

 

Far from a “humble” foreign policy that treated other nations with respect, Bush chose to browbeat and bully even close U.S. allies, such as France and Germany. Rather than avoiding “nation-building,” Bush’s occupation of Iraq amounts to a wholesale restructuring of the country, including plans to sell off Iraqi national assets to outside businesses.

 

Though some of the Bush administration’s more grandiose plans for Iraq have been curtailed because of political and military resistance, U.S. occupation chief Paul Bremer has continued to wield effective veto power over the Iraqi Governing Council’s drafting of an interim constitution. While the Bush administration has said it intends to hand over “sovereignty” to the Iraqis on June 30, that “sovereignty” won’t include the power to order U.S. troops out of Iraq or to significantly limit how those military forces can be used.

 

Shortchanging Veterans

 

Critics have noted other reversals from Bush’s campaign positions. During the campaign, one of Bush’s favorite lines was that under Clinton, the “military is over-deployed, under-trained and underpaid.”

 

Under Bush, however, the military has been stretched even thinner and has faced administration efforts to trim expected pay raises. The Army Times, an independent newspaper that covers military affairs, reported that Bush tried “to significantly cut the 2004 military pay raise” from 3.7 percent to 2 percent. The Bush administration also got into trouble last year when it tried to cut combat pay and family separation pay for the men and women serving overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Bush’s defenders say he was forced to abandon his campaign positions because of circumstances beyond his control, such as a weakening economy and the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

 

But critics say Bush simply was saying what he needed to say to win votes, that his words and his real agenda never matched. They cite evidence such as statements from former Treasury Secretary O’Neill, that the administration was making plans to invade Iraq in early 2001, months before the Sept. 11 attacks. They also note that back-tracking on carbon-dioxide regulation occurred in March 2001, two months after Bush took office.

 

Some skeptics also suspect that Bush and his backers had a secret agenda, the use of “strategic deficits” to eventually force the federal government to slash spending on social programs and regulations on the environment and workplace safety. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, a conservative Republican, lent credibility to that view when he argued before Congress that the Bush-era deficits necessitated cuts in Social Security benefits.

 

Beyond the forsaken campaign pledges, there are other contrasts between what Bush says and what Bush does.

 

As a candidate facing possible defeat in Florida, for instance, Bush rushed to the U.S. Supreme Court to get the justices to make an unprecedented ruling to stop a statewide recount of votes. In December 2000, activist judges making novel legal arguments to protect Bush's interests were just fine. Today, however, Bush is outraged that "activist judges" have ruled that the government shouldn't bar homosexuals from getting married. Stopping vote counts apparently is one thing, while stopping weddings is an altogether different matter.

 

So, there may be questions about how premeditated Bush was in breaking campaign promises and engaging in other logical inconsistencies. Perhaps, he was simply reacting to unexpected events.

 

But there can be little doubt that Bush’s complaints about Democratic flip-flopping are more than a bit like a fellow in a glass house throwing stones. A vigorous debate could be arranged by splicing together clips of Bush-2000 with Bush-2004.

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