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National Perspective | Washington Outlook

Bush Steps Lightly With His Agenda After Triggering Clinton Land Mines

April 23, 2001|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

From beyond the grave, the Clinton administration haunts its successor.

Initially, comparisons with former President Clinton almost entirely benefited President Bush. Lately, they've emerged as one of Bush's biggest headaches. The divide, as on just about everything concerning Clinton, is the line between his personal and policy legacies.

Personal comparisons with Clinton have almost all helped Bush. The firestorm over Clinton's eleventh-hour pardons underscored Bush's promise to restore "honor and integrity" to the presidency. Admirers find Bush's low-key style a refreshing break from his peripatetic predecessor; on its cover, the conservative National Review recently declared that Bush's "most important virtue" was his "return to modesty." The magazine didn't even need to say who had ostensibly exiled modesty from the White House; the contrast with Clinton was implicit, as it has been in so many of the ways Bush has personally defined himself to America.

On the policy front, it's the opposite story. Bush's efforts to undo specific Clinton regulations and spending decisions have generated fierce controversies. It's almost as if, on the way out, Clinton sowed land mines all across the path of his successor's first 100 days.

Bush has set off the loudest explosions concerning environmental and other regulatory issues. From late January through early April, his administration announced it would revoke or suspend at least seven Clinton-era decisions concerning the environment, worker safety and labor rights, most prominently the Clinton proposal to reduce the level of arsenic in drinking water. For good measure, Bush renounced the Kyoto, Japan, treaty that the Clinton administration helped negotiate to reduce the emission of the gases that cause global warming.

Probably more than anything else Bush has done, these reversals have fueled the perception that he is governing more conservatively than he ran. They also contributed to the rising share of Americans in recent polls who said Bush was more concerned about big corporations than he is about ordinary citizens. In both of these respects, the Clinton administration actions established a yardstick against which Bush, involuntarily, was measured.

The White House apparently didn't like the picture that comparison produced. From the start, Bush has been upholding some Clinton regulations even as he rejected others. But lately Bush has noticeably shifted the balance: He has been reversing Clinton decisions less and ratifying them more--usually with great fanfare. The pivot can be pinpointed to a precise moment.

On the morning of April 5, the Washington Post reported that the Agriculture Department was planning to repeal an industry-opposed Clinton rule requiring more rigorous salmonella testing for ground beef used in school lunches. That afternoon, blaming low-level bureaucrats for the initial decision, the White House backed off and upheld the regulation.

In the two weeks since, the administration has upheld Clinton rules on medical privacy, energy efficiency for washing machines, wetlands protection and the disclosure of lead emissions--the final two back-to-back early last week. Later in the week, it announced it would set its own arsenic standard and sign a global treaty to curb toxic chemicals that Clinton helped negotiate. Post-salmonella, Bush's biggest hit on a major Clinton-era rule has been to modestly loosen a requirement that air conditioners use less energy.

One senior administration official says this apparent pattern isn't a pattern at all. "Each decision is really being taken on its merits and the timing is being dictated by the timing of the effective dates of the various regulations," the official said.

But it pushes the boundaries of coincidence that so many Clinton regulations that the White House reviewed in February and March were flawed, and almost all the rules reassessed in April struck a perfect pitch. More likely, the Bush administration discovered the backlash for undoing Clinton rules was hotter than it expected.

That doesn't mean Bush won't try to reverse more Clinton rules later on; one senior business lobbyist says April's truce may only be the president's effort to store up political capital before challenging another set of Clinton environmental decisions when the administration releases its energy plan. But the new trend does suggest the White House has concluded it cannot systematically reverse Clinton regulations without at least offering an alternative approach to the problems they address--a point that Bush counselor Karen Hughes has been stressing internally.

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