Bush's hardest sell yet on energy

Visiting blackout-beset California, he finds his plans - and loyalties - are suspect.

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George W. Bush's visit to California - his first to the Golden State since becoming president - is expected to reveal just how firmly he will hew to his principle of nonintervention amid a rising call for price caps on electricity.

It could also provide an early glimpse of whether Californians are willing to trust the new president - and, by extension, his party - when he insists that a free-market-based energy policy, not price controls, will ultimately bring rates down to something resembling affordability.

By all accounts, this week's trip won't be a pleasure cruise. President Bush faces a hostile governor eager to blame him for prolonging the energy crunch - and a surly public that suspects his policies will do more to help out-of-state energy companies than California ratepayers.

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Still, Californians give Mr. Bush higher overall job-approval ratings than they give Gov. Gray Davis (D). Even if Bush alleviates the public's suspicions only a little, the reasoning goes, his appearance here can help insulate Republican lawmakers in Congress against voter retaliation in 2002.

It'll be a tough sell, though, for many ordinary Californians.

"He's been monkeying around too long, ignoring us," says Burda May Oldums, a spirited woman who runs a beauty shop in South Central Los Angeles. "That's understandable - we didn't vote for him," she adds. "But I'm suspicious of why he's coming here at this late date - it's like you can't trust his motives."

Bush has his answers ready: an ardent defense of free-market principles, a plan for trimming Uncle Sam's power use, and word that a tax-cut check - to help pay high energy bills - is in the proverbial mail. Whether it's enough to soften public ire - and protect Republican incumbents in 2002 midterm congressional elections - depends on how well he uses his bully pulpit.

"The neon sign isn't exactly flashing 'Welcome' at the Nevada border," says Joe Cerrell, a longtime Democratic political consultant.

One reason for the antipathy is a basic difference in philosophies between Bush and many Californians. Some 74 percent of state residents - and a growing number of small businesses and other traditionally Republican groups - support price caps as a short-term solution to stabilize the chaotic energy market.

Price controls: boo and hiss

But Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney see price caps as monkey wrenches in the gears of the free-market machine. If given time, they argue, the market will balance itself and produce sufficient energy at prices low enough to satisfy California's demand.

Government intervention, such as California's current cap on wholesale electricity prices, discourages new supply from being generated and conservation, thus creating crises like the current one, they argue. Of price caps, Mr. Cheney said last week, "We think that's a mistake."

In the meantime, Bush has ordered all federal agencies in California to conserve as much power as they can. He also promotes the new tax cut - coming in late summer in the form of a rebate check - as a short-term fix for high bills.

But many Californians are skeptical that only a market imbalance is creating blackouts and high prices. They blame power companies for profiting off the crisis - and for making it worse.

If Bush is really serious about helping, says Los Angeles musician David Gregoli, "he can start by calling for indictments of the heads of the energy companies for mismanagement and graft."

This perception is fueled in part by Governor Davis, who has increasingly blamed federal agencies and Texas-based power companies for the state's energy woes.

Another philosophical difference is Bush's emphasis on drilling for oil and building many new power plants. This offends the environmental and conservation-oriented sensibilities of many Californians.

A recent Field Poll survey found that 54 percent of residents rate Bush's handling of California's energy crisis as poor or very poor, while just 38 percent said the same of Davis. That puts Bush in the same league as the ill-regarded energy companies and Public Utilities Commission.

His overall numbers, though, are stronger. A recent Public Policy Institute poll gave Bush a 57 percent job-approval rating, compared with 46 percent for Davis.

Nervous in the ranks

But some Republicans are nervous that the full impact of the energy crisis has not yet hit Bush and the GOP - and that Bush must act soon. "There's only one issue in California - it's energy," says veteran GOP consultant Jack Quinn. "What's needed out here is a short-term fix - and Bush might as well not come out if he doesn't want to talk about it."

Some worry that Bush's perceived inaction will mean trouble for California's Republican members of Congress in the 2002 election - and could jeopardize the slim GOP majority in the House of Representatives.

There's also the possibility of a 2004 presidential contest with Davis, although that is looking less likely, given the governor's flailing over the energy issue.

Despite the political pressure, Bush won't stray from his principles, says a chief California adviser, Gerald Parsky. "He has laid out a very strong energy policy, and he's not a person that looks for a short-term political fix."

Clearly, though, one goal of the trip is to tamp down criticism. One effort to do so will be a meeting with Davis scheduled for today.

Bush will also look for more support from people - and prospective voters - such as Angel Gomez. A lawyer in Century City, Calif., he says price caps won't help. "We need money to flow into the industry for new plants and [power] lines - and we need to give people an incentive to conserve."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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