Makeup calls don't win any ballgames

April 20, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In sports, it's known as a "makeup call" -- when a referee or umpire who has made an obvious mistake evens things up by favoring the other team the next time a foul or penalty is called.

That's what the appearance in the White House briefing room of Environmental Protection Agency director Christine Todd Whitman looked suspiciously like, announcing that Bill Clinton's regulation on tighter lead standards will stand.

Usually, when an administration decides not to change a regulation of any sort already in place, it doesn't say much or anything at all about it. On this occasion, shoving Christie Whitman out before the cameras in the White House goldfish bowl to declare a basic status quo was, to say the least, overdoing it a bit.

It's not unreasonable to suggest that had not some previous Clinton environmental regulations been so conspicuously thrown out, producing much wailing among the tree-hugging set, the new EPA boss never would have found herself on Washington's prime news-media stage.

Her appearance signals a new Bush White House effort to assuage the environmental watchdogs, whose complaints have fingered the new president as a heartless wretch who doesn't care how much carbon dioxide your kids breathe into their lungs or how much arsenic they swallow in their drinking water.

President Bush's switch on his campaign pledge to roll back carbon dioxide emissions initiated the environmental howls because the selfsame Ms. Whitman had gone out on a limb trumpeting that pledge, only to have it sawed off behind her. She has since picked herself up, dusted herself off and fallen dutifully in line.

The Whitman visit to the White House briefing room followed a lower-key decision the day before to let another Clinton regulation stand governing protection of wetlands.

Together with the ruling to hold to the Clinton levels on reporting lead emissions by manufacturers and other businesses, the White House obviously is bolstering its environmental record in anticipation of the spotlight it will draw on Earth Day this Sunday.

As for Mr. Bush, the new acquiescence in a couple of President Bill Clinton's environmental regulations, many of them set in place as he was going out the White House door, marks a hiatus in an early rush to reverse them.

In addition to his decision to counter Mr. Clinton's order to raise arsenic standards, Mr. Bush also had scotched American participation in the Kyoto treaty on global warming and Mr. Clinton's late cracking down on mining cleanup requirements.

In the face of all the criticism Mr. Bush has drawn on his environmental rollbacks, a White House spokesman said hopefully: "We think that the American people are going to judge this president on the totality of his record. We're proud of this record and will continue to build on it."

But the most recent Gallup Poll indicates Mr. Bush has a way to go to persuade voters he is a friend of the environment. It found that only 49 percent of those surveyed said they expected he would do a good job protecting the environment, to 41 percent who said he wouldn't. Also, only 36 percent said they thought the quality of the environment was getting better, to 57 percent who said it was getting worse.

While giving the environmental community some cause to back off its earlier criticism, the president has the real or potential polluters on his case for going along with the Clinton ruling on permissible lead levels. A spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business announced it intends to sue the government on grounds that the rule will impose unreasonable burdens on business.

But as of now, Mr. Bush has little to fear from the business community, whose leaders figure to be big beneficiaries of his proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut, not to mention his plan to scrap the estate tax that, if passed, will keep more millions of their fortunes safe for their heirs.

In politics as in sports, however, makeup calls seldom decide the final outcome of a ballgame. It will take more than an occasional bone thrown the way of the staunchest environmentalists to have them see Mr. Bush as the kind of friend of the Earth that, for instance, Al Gore was, before he apparently dropped off this heavenly body.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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