Is Christie Whitman Being Groomed as White House's Good Cop?

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Whitman discusses Bush's environmental protection policies on 'Meet the Press'

Oh, Christie. Is it happening again?

First, the EPA chief indicated Sunday that after gauging the opposition to Alaskan oil drilling, her boss was going green and beating a strategic retreat. "Look, nobody's deaf, dumb and blind over there, and everybody knows the environment is important, and we saw how things have been portrayed," EPA chief Christie Whitman said on ABC Sunday. Drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge "has to go through the Congress in order to happen, and it's very difficult."

And then chief Bush strategist Karl Rove piped up in this week's TIME magazine: The price of drilling, in terms of political capital, looked prohibitively high. And so it seemed as if the environmentalists — after watching with what must have been a perverse glee as Bush spent much of his first 90-odd days galvanizing their ranks with eco-unfriendly announcements on everything from carbon dioxide emissions to arsenic levels in drinking water — had won a big one.

But we've been here before: When it's Christie Whitman holding the bugle, you never know which way the troops are really going. To wit, Ari Fleischer on Monday:

"An energy proposal that will be shortly submitted from the vice president's task force will include a small provision calling for opening up a small portion of ANWR for energy development," said the president's mouthpiece. So was Whitman getting ditched again? "I think there was some confusion... as a result of a newspaper story or magazine story, and then that confusion was resolved," Fleischer replied.

It's confusing all right, and of course we'll never know for sure what the decision is until drill touches tundra. But there would seem to be three possible translations.

The back-burnering. Bush saves face by continuing to insist he can tap the tundra in — enter catchphrase — "an environmentally responsible way," and merely declines to take up the fight in Congress. Remember Social Security privatization?

The war. Fleischer certainly left open the possibility that the administration is indeed addicted to the up-Hill fight. Like tax cuts. Or "fast track," a battle Bush began in Quebec City with typical over-optimism. It's starting to look like a pattern: Take campaign promise. Assume mandate. Make menacing speeches in senators' home states, and then take whatever Trent Lott can get.

This, of course, is also the scenario in which Whitman looks really, really ignored.

And finally the third possibility, which may be for conspiracists only: The planned martyring.

Far from trying to make Christie Whitman look bad, these ritual undercuttings — on CO2 emissions in March and now ANWR — are part of an exquisitely orchestrated plot to make Whitman, whose environmental record as New Jersey governor was far from mint green, into the Sierra Club's Woman of the Year.

In this method of managing the fuming environmental lobby, Interior Secretary Gale Norton — who was undercutting Whitman on other channels before the Sunday shows even went off the air — plays the devil on Bush's right shoulder, and Whitman gets put on his left as the administration's own environmental underdog, a safely declawed, in-house John McCain. And when Dick Cheney thinks the time is right, bam! — having moved the entire debate 10 paces to the right, Bush strikes a deal between the extremist (Norton) and the moderate (Whitman) and calls it a benevolent compromise.

Hey — for all the Democratic gloating about Tom Daschle's big goal-line stand on the tax cut, the number is still $1.2 trillion (and headed higher). Maybe a little rope-a-dope is what "compassionate conservatism" is all about.