The GOP Tries On Jimmy Carter's Sweater

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Bush speaks at the Department of Energy

Congressional Republicans will spend their July 4 recess in a renewed push to sell their constituents on the White House's production-heavy, red-tape-slashing energy plan. And if some of them are sweating a little more than usual, remember that Thursday they got the ultimate measure of the political climate in Washington for the GOP on energy: George W. Bush sent them off in a sweater.

Bush delivered his Thursday pep talk at the Department of Energy after touring an exhibit of fuel-cell-powered energy-efficient cars, and the headline of the speech was to dress up conservationist policies in business-friendly clothing (or possibly the other way around). Fuel cells. Energy-efficient appliances. Putting the federal government "squarely on the side of innovation."

The urge to conserve

And then, straight from Jimmy Carter's famous conservation speech wardrobe, out came the cardigan. Bush announced that the White House would be a conservationist pulpit: All employees would be ordered to take such steps as turning their computers off when they leave work. Motion-detector switches would be installed in conference rooms so the lights go off when no one's home. (Bush will ask Congress for money to do the same to all the rooms in the White House, meaning the Oval Office should generally be dark by dinnertime.)

Not that Bush was ever against conservation, exactly — he just never gave it so much respect. But this is a man fast learning the fine Washington art of the course correction. In May, convinced the nation was terrified of going California and hungering for a steak-and-eggs energy plan, Bush sold his plan as an aggressive drill-and-dig, anti-regulatory prescription to shoo away the tree-huggers and get the nation — and the economy — humming again.

Two months later, a New York Times/CBS poll released last week found that not only do two-thirds of the nation think Bush and Cheney are too beholden to oil companies, 60 percent think the pair made the whole energy crisis up.

And why not? Energy prices are falling, both in the market and at the pump, and Alan Greenspan, in a post-rate-cut speech Thursday in Chicago, said energy-price inflation was the furthest thing from his mind. In the isolated areas that have a genuine crunch — California and New York — political forces have turned against Bush; the FERC has put price caps in place in on the left coast and will allow New York to activate "circuit breaker" spike-prevention measures if it needs to.

A newly-green president

So Bush is buttoning up his sweater and hugging trees. In addition to the new lights-off White House, Bush will now ask Congress to provide $377 million for renewable energy programs, a $100 million increase over his original budget request. The man has been looking at his polling — and that of the Republican Party, which in the Times poll has slipped to 46 percent favorability from 54 in May (the Democrats are at 56 percent) — and he's apparently decided that when it comes to policy, "balance" isn't only in the fine print — it's in what you talk about and when you talk about it.

Congressional Republicans are about to find out whether the new Bush Energy Policy is playing in Peoria, and see if they can help get its public-support above lukewarm (at best).

If they don't, Washington in winter 2002 is going to be an awfully chilly place for the GOP.