President pushes his agenda with contradictory arguments

Posted: Monday, June 18, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Missile defense? It's time to move ahead even if the science has not been perfected. Global warming? That's different. Needs more scientific study.

President Bush gave diametrically opposing reasons when making separate cases in Europe last week for deploying a missile defense shield and for junking the 1997 Kyoto treaty on climate control.

He asserted that restrictions on emissions proposed by the Kyoto agreement are not ''science-based'' and should thus be ignored -- and more spent on research into ways to address the problem.

On missile defense, however, Bush wants to move ahead quickly to put a preliminary system in place, even through research to date has not demonstrated that one would work. In fact, more tests of interceptors have failed than succeeded.

Of course, Bush is doing what most politicians do: rearranging his facts and arguments to bolster the case at hand.

''He didn't invent the process,'' said Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas and a longtime Bush watcher. ''He's rather blatant about it, however. He's not as subtle as some politicians have been in reshaping the message to fit the audience.''

And, after all, it has worked for Bush on domestic issues.

He got Congress to go along with his tax cut by repackaging it as an economic stimulus program. He has redefined his energy policy, which encourages more exploration, more pipelines, more refineries and more burning of oil and coal, into an antidote to chronic power shortages in California and soaring fuel prices elsewhere.

Bush was asked at a news conference last week if he could explain the apparent contradiction in demanding more scientific evidence on climate control but not on missile defense.

He didn't.

He did say that world leaders were becoming more supportive of his missile defense program once they heard ''the logic behind the rationale.''

Not everyone found his logic consistent or his rationale logical.

French President Jacques Chirac, for instance, suggested the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which Bush wants to scrap, was a ''pillar'' of strategic balance and that a missile defense deployment could restart the arms race.

''It's hard for Europeans to be sniping at the Bush plan when we don't know what it is,'' said Philip Gordon, a European specialist at the Brookings Institution. ''I suspect that the missile defense debate will be with us for the entirety of the Bush administration''

In selling his missile plan, Bush is emphasizing -- critics say exaggerating -- the potential threat to civilized society of ballistic missiles in the hands of unstable states or terrorists. He says he favors a bigger plan than former President Clinton did, although has not provided a blueprint.

In denouncing the Kyoto treaty, Bush is minimizing the potential environmental threat of greenhouse gases.

''It's though he's not conscious of his contradictions,'' said Wayne Fields, an English professor at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes in presidential rhetoric.

''I don't know that he exaggerates more or less than his predecessors. But there is a peculiar kind of self-assurance about him,'' Fields said. ''He is not a man given to self-doubt, even when he has to correct himself or change things around.''

Exaggeration is a common technique for politicians regardless of political stripe, and Bush has done it before -- including in his comments on the U.S. economy.

After saying in his campaign that the U.S. fiscal house was so sturdy that part of the surplus ought to be returned to Americans as tax relief, Bush went on to paint a dire picture of a ''stumbling'' and ''stuttering'' economy once he took office.

That line of reasoning eventually helped him win congressional approval for a $1.3 trillion, 10-year tax cut, the largest since the Reagan tax cut in 1981.

But Democrats and even some Republican strategists suggested he went too far in flaying an economy that, after all, had not slipped into a recession and was still growing, albeit slowly. Bush eventually lightened up.

''The president's words do have an impact on consumer confidence,'' said Gene Sperling, Clinton's former chief economic adviser. ''You have to find a balance between being a cheerleader and being chicken little.''

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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