California sweats as Bush waits

His response to the state's electricity crisis - long 'hands off' - is showing more savvy.

California is wondering where all its juice went. Not just the electric kind, but the political kind.

The largest state - with the largest electoral vote, largest congressional delegation, and largest economy - is beginning to feel like the orphan of American politics.

During his first 100-plus days in office, President Bush has visited more than half the states. But not California, even though the energy shortage here could yet grow into a national crisis - and, as one analyst put it, will require "something like a George Bush on a white horse" to correct.

California's Sen. Dianne Feinstein has reportedly asked the White House several times for a meeting to discuss the electricity shortage, so far to no avail.

Seldom in history have a new president and a state started off this badly out of step. But the California rift appears so obvious that it is drawing comparisons to President Gerald Ford's rebuff of financially desperate New York City in 1975, which brought the famous headline: "Ford to N.Y.C.: Drop Dead."

"I think [Mr. Bush] has written it off completely, the way Republicans wrote off the Deep South in the '50s and '60s," says Joe Cerrell, a longtime Democratic strategist. "He's said, 'We've lost it and are never going to win it in 2002, 2004, or 2006 - so fuhgeddaboudit.' "

While others see more give in the Bush administration's position of late, few would deny that the White House has been standoffish toward a state that went solidly for Al Gore in November and that is almost uniformly ruled now by Democrats.

But the "hands off" calculus is not without risk. The Republican Party will be trying to hold onto its congressional majority in next year's midterm elections - and may have some trouble keeping California Republicans in office if voters here think the head of the party has washed his hands of their biggest concerns.

Neither will such a perception improve the standing of California's GOP, which has become nearly moribund in recent years.

On top of that, California represents 14 percent of the US economy, and any extended slump in the Golden State, brought on by the kilowatt crisis, could ripple across the country.

"For the Bush administration, the tricky part of this is to get the right balance," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in southern California. The Bush team doesn't mind having California suffer to some extent "as an example of the failings of the Carter-era approach to energy problems," he says, "but they don't want it to fall apart so badly that it drags down the national economy."

A more savvy approach to California

During the administration's early days, California's pleas for help were treated as the whines of a small child. "You caused the problem, you must fix it," the Bush administration told the state.

But the White House's responses to the California crisis have clearly grown more nuanced over time. California's most persistent request has been that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has ruled that wholesale power rates charged to the state were "unjust and unreasonable," do something about that finding, such as impose a cap on wholesale prices.

FERC refused to do so. But late last month, it adopted some weaker, more conditional caps. Though a gesture in the state's direction, the moves were largely dismissed here as inadequate.

A similar repositioning by Bush can be seen on the question of conservation.

Gov. Gray Davis (D) is pushing hard for conservation as a way to weather the crisis - and has seen a 9 percent drop in state electricity use from a year ago.

But last week, Vice President Dick Cheney largely dismissed conservation as an energy strategy, as he gave a broad outline of the administration's new energy policy. Rather, he emphasized production and use of oil, gas, coal, and nuclear power.

On Capitol Hill, California's Republican lawmakers fretted over how that would play in their state and told the White House so, according to reports from Washington. By week's end, Bush was recalibrating the message, saying conservation was important, though not enough to meet the nation's needs, and noting that "this administration is deeply concerned about California and its citizens." He also unveiled a new initiative for energy conservation in federal facilities in the state.

"In general, there has been a fair amount of discomfort with California in the Bush administration," says GOP consultant Dan Schnur. Despite all the Californians on the Bush team, he says, most are policy experts who have no ear for California's unique brand of politics.

The state as object lesson

If Bush's recent tenor shows greater sensitivity to Californians' plight, energy analysts see little evidence that the gap is narrowing between his views and those of Governor Davis.

While the Bush administration points to California's problems as evidence of a national need to increase supply - of fuels as well as of electricity - the immediate crisis here is financial, says Mark Bernstein of the Rand Corp., who has advised some of the state's top Democratic lawmakers on energy matters.

He notes that California's power bill has risen from $7 billion in 1999 to about $70 billion this year - a bleeding he says calls out for addressing the issue of wholesale prices.

By resisting that, Bush is hewing to a free-market philosophy.

But he is also using California as an example of how a heavy emphasis on conservation and environmental concerns, which contributed to the state's refusal to build any major new power plants for 12 years, can end in skyrocketing prices as demand outruns supply.

Still, with the 2002 elections nearing, and with Bush's 2004 reelection bid in mind, the president may not want to stay at odds with California for much longer. Though he lost the state by 1 million votes in 2000, there's no way his team "would deliberately start that race 54 electoral votes in the hole," says Mr. Schnur.

"The key is timing," agrees Alan Heslop, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. The Bush administration doesn't "want to be seen as contributing to these problems but, rather, as coming in to save them."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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