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Published: Saturday, 6/16/2001

White House Watch: Bush a study in `groupthink'

WASHINGTON - Before he's elected, a president has spent at least a year laying out firm positions on hundreds of issues. After the election, he whittles away at many of them, fudges some, or dodges some altogether.

After five months in office, President Bush is a work in progress, an evolving study in how “groupthink” works. White House chief of staff Andrew Card says his job is not to make decisions but to make sure the President has the benefit of a lot of different thoughts on the issue at hand.

Possibly as a result, lately Mr. Bush seems to be “refining” his thoughts almost daily, now that he's gotten most of what he wanted in the tax cut that passed Congress.

He supported the Navy's 60-year-old program of test bombing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques until continuing protests led to worry in the White House that this could hurt Republicans with Hispanic voters in next year's midterm elections and Mr. Bush's re-election chances in 2004. Now the White House says bombing will end in 2003 - infuriating both the Navy, which argues that the military benefits of training on Vieques are enormous, and Puerto Ricans, who want the bombing stopped at once.

Environmental protection has become a smorgasbord that changes daily. In the campaign, Mr. Bush was for capping carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. He changed his mind as President. He blocked new standards lowering permissible arsenic in drinking water until the resulting furor caused him political headaches. Then he said that new, less costly standards would be negotiated. He consistently has opposed the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, but now he admits the United States is helping damage Earth and indicates he wants to work out a compromise short of promulgating the treaty. As a result, both European leaders and environmentalists are angry.

Mr. Bush went to Europe to “consult” with leaders on his plan to make missile defense the center of a new approach to world security, although it means dumping the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. They said absolutely no to getting rid of the treaty. He said he was delighted he was making such “good progress.”

Mr. Bush began his tenure with blazing rhetoric against North Korea as an enemy of America. Now, after pushing and prodding by State Department diplomats and speeches by South Koreans urging him to take note of “positive” signs of change in North Korea, he has authorized talks to resume in New York with North Korean officials.

As a candidate, Mr. Bush had clear thoughts on campaign finance reform, and they weren't the same as the four leaders of apocalyptic reform in the Senate and House, Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D., Wis.), and Reps. Chris Shays (R., Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D., Mass.). Worried that Republicans could be blamed if it goes down to defeat, Mr. Bush has now assured Mr. Shays that he will not veto the bill. It has passed the Senate and is supposed to come up for a vote in the House next month.

Mr. Bush has said repeatedly he won't cap energy costs to help California consumers. After it became clear Mr. Bush and fellow Republicans were losing a major political battle over the Golden State's sky-high energy costs, word comes that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will impose new limits on energy prices in the state, a face-saving way of delivering some relief without giving Democratic Gov. Gray Davis all that he wants.

Mr. Bush never called them “vouchers,” but he did come out squarely behind the concept of letting parents have small grants to transfer their children to better schools. As it became clear this would hang up passage of any education bill, his passion for vouchers melted away.

Throughout the campaign Mr. Bush talked about how he would fund faith-based groups that do social work. But as criticism mounted that he was blurring the lines between separation of church and state, it now turns out that such groups won't be permitted to include any religious activity in their social programs if they get public funds. That prompted Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State to say the White House was either “in full retreat or complete disarray.”

All during his campaign Mr. Bush promised to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But most countries don't recognize Israel's annexation of Arab East Jerusalem, and such a move would cause havoc in always-dicey Mideast politics. Now Mr. Bush has delayed such a move and has no timetable for ordering it.

All presidents refine their positions, of course. It's called growing in office. Or learning how to be president of all the people. Or learning what they're talking about. Or getting ready for the next election.

Ann McFeatters is chief of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail her at amcfeatters@nationalpress.com.



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