Bush's indifference worries state GOP

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Bush's indifference worries state's GOP


January 27, 2001

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WASHINGTON -- President Bush's initial hands-off response to California's power woes worried some state Republicans, who said he missed an opportunity to reach out to voters who snubbed him in November.

But in recent days, his administration has made some overtures -- a realization, some say, that it can't appear to be ignoring a crisis gripping a state with the world's sixth-largest economy.

Political observers also suspect that California Republicans have put some pressure on the White House to be more engaged.

"The president has such close allies from California, particularly in the congressional delegation, I would be surprised if this message hasn't been delivered," said Dan Schnur, a Republican political consultant in California.

Democrats wasted little time putting their own spin on Bush's approach to the problem.

"To summarize, Bush said to California, 'Drop dead,' " said California Democratic strategist Bob Mulholland. "We won't need a long extension cord to connect Bush to power companies that appear to have profited from the skyrocketing electricity costs that have hit California".

The power industry was well represented among the biggest contributors to Bush's campaign and inaugural festivities. In a signal that some Californians expect the administration to remain engaged, Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego, gave Bush a candle when she joined other newly elected lawmakers at a White House luncheon yesterday.

"I told him it was to remind him that we want to continue to work with him on the (power) issue," she said.

Bush made his first extensive comments on the crisis two days before taking office. He ruled out aggressive federal intervention and seemed to gloat when he said "a lot of the harshest critics" of his environmental policies "are beginning to have rolling blackouts in their communities."

Some California Republicans privately worried that Bush appeared to be sending a shot across the bow of a state that overwhelmingly voted against him in the presidential election and that harbors a potential re-election foe, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

Schnur said Bush's comment "probably won't have a negative political effect. But it represents a missed political opportunity."

"After the Northridge earthquake, Bill Clinton sent half his Cabinet to Los Angeles. . . . You couldn't throw a rock without hitting a Clinton Cabinet secretary," said Schnur, who added that the federal government's actual role following the quake was relatively small compared to the state's efforts.

"My guess is, the (Bush) administration did not mean to deliver a message that came across as harshly as it was received last week. This week you saw an indication of additional action by Bush," he said.

On Tuesday, the administration extended a pair of emergency orders that have kept electricity and natural gas flowing to the state, although it warned that the two-week extension would be the last.

Bush aides also said the administration would be willing to waive some clean-air regulations if the state thought that would help increase power generation. They said Bush would explore whether Mexico could increase its power production to help its northern neighbor. Bush is traveling to Mexico next month to meet with President Vicente Fox.

Gerald Parsky, who headed Bush's presidential campaign in California, said Bush is under pressure from other Western states to let the emergency orders lapse, adding that Gov. Davis agreed to the two-week limit on the extension.

"Certainly, Republicans feel that this was a very reasonable approach," Parsky said.

Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Escondido, seconded Bush's contention that the problem is largely for California to solve and that it has been aggravated by the lack of a national energy policy.

"He's absolutely right. California has to get its act together," Cunningham said. "The actual remedy to fix this is in the hands of Gray Davis."

However, Cunningham has endorsed legislation that would allow the energy secretary to cap wholesale power rates in California and 10 other Western states. Bush has ruled out price controls.

Schnur says the Bush administration should maintain a high profile on the issue.

"Even if the ability of the federal government to have an impact is limited, it's not going to keep state Democrats from trying to lay the problem at the White House doorstep," he said.

Indeed, said Democrat Mulholland, "we've got the ad ready to go."

Without endorsing the kind of federal intervention some California officials have sought, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan warned Thursday that the state is not an island. Greenspan's comments always get the attention of the White House.

"It's scarcely credible that you can have a major economic problem in California which does not feed to the rest of the 49 states," Greenspan told senators. "The presumption that we can merely look at this as an issue which is going to get relatively easily resolved and that we don't have to be concerned about its implications is clearly mistaken."

Copyright 2001 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

-- Swissrose (cellier@azstarnet.com), January 27, 2001

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