Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The new man in D.C. offers changed view of public lands?

As his confirmation as secretary of the interior seems almost a slam-dunk, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne is expressing a new, changed and perhaps chastened view of the stewardship of public lands.

Unlike his days as a U.S. senator, when he favored selling public lands to pay landowners for helping to protect endangered species, Kempthorne told senators he does not favor President Bush's proposed sale of public lands to reduce the deficit or pay for rural schools.

This is all well and good.

However, what nominee Kempthorne says now and what he would do as Interior chief once in office are distinctly different. The chief is no freer to exercise contrarian views over President Bush than any other cabinet member. President Bush and Vice President Cheney call the shots.

But there's also this possibility: that Kempthorne has been given an advance signal from the White House that the president will abandon his proposed land sale because of stiffened opposition in the Senate and is encouraging Kempthorne to spread the word and impress senators with his independent thought.

Also a tipoff: Idaho Sen. Larry Craig said last week the Bush plan "is not going to happen."

It may be wishful thinking, but could there be a shift of attitudes on the environment and public lands in the last years of Bush's presidency as a way to reverse political fortunes for Republicans?

There's ample precedent. Richard Nixon, not known as a champion of the environment, created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 in a paean to growing environmental activism.

Then, in 1972, as his popularity and approval ratings began to plummet, he yielded to environmentalists and yanked the rug out from under plans for a new regional jetport in the Florida Everglades.

Although stubborn to a fault in sticking with policies, President Bush nevertheless could use Kempthorne, a Western governor, as a new broom to sweep out harsh environmental policies, introduce more environmentally friendly policies, and thus reduce voter animosity toward Republicans prior to 2006 and 2008 elections.

That's a tall order. It would mean backing away from proposals to weaken the Endangered Species Act as well as opening more public lands for oil exploration, both supported by Kempthorne.

Yet, as the president's approval ratings sink to the perilously low 30th percentile, and Congress' approval nosedives to 25 percent, switching positions and changing course is the first line of defense for politicians seeking public approval.

And nothing makes voters feel better than politicians offering them something that makes them feel good.

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