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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias Bush to California GOP: Your're on your own

February 06, 2001

It was more than a message to Gov. Gray Davis when President Bush told reporters in mid-January that "I'm against price controls (on wholesale electricity)."

Yes, that statement baldly tells Democrat Davis he's on his own in solving the power crisis. But it sent the same message to the California Republican Party, which has viewed Bush's taking the presidency as an oasis in a desert of defeat.

Some immediately compared the Bush remark to ex-President Gerald Ford's 1970s-era absolute refusal to help bail New York City out of a severe financial crisis. "Ford to NY: Drop Dead" blared a famous New York Daily News headline at the time.

Bush might as well be saying just that to California. He's giving the windfall profits reaped by his Texas pals and supporters more importance than the prosperity of the nation's largest state and, possibly, America as a whole.

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And there is no doubt that leading Bush campaign donors have been among the prime beneficiaries of the California crisis. Example: The Bush inaugural committee took in $300,000 during December from Enron Corp. and its executives and $100,000 each from Reliant Energy and Southern Energy. The Bush campaign also drew more than $400,000 in donations from executives of the power producers that now control much of California's electricity supply — the very folks Davis has called "out-of-state profiteers." Enron and its executives alone have donated more than $1 million to various Bush campaigns.

So when Bush says he wants no price controls, he's saying he wants no limits on the cash flowing to his friends.

Other leading Republicans in Washington go even farther.

"The California consumer has to feel the hit," said Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska, new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

These pronouncements could affect not only Davis and other California Democrats. They may have a huge impact on the state's GOP, for California Republicans looked to Bush for possible rescue after his minority-vote national victory last fall. Reeling from losses in all but one heavily contested election in this state last fall, they have no dynamic figure of their own to lead them back to competitive stature.

But Bush's refusal so far to respond to the California blackouts has affected some of the GOP's key support bases more than almost anyone else.

Silicon Valley companies had to close assembly lines; their executives pumped almost $10 million into the Bush campaign last year. Dairy farms and gasoline refiners faced both immediate and long-term crises; both are Republican fund-raising mainstays.

Instead of assuming the role of rescuer and contrasting themselves with the non-responses of the former Clinton administration, Bush and his allies are talking tougher. This leads some to wonder if Californians and even California Republicans are being punished for this state's solid Democratic vote.

Republicans kissed most of the Latino vote goodbye for at least a generation by backing the anti-illegal immigrant 1994 Proposition 187. Now Bush may be chucking this entire state. That's not wise when California will have 55 electoral votes in the next presidential election, exactly 20 percent of what it takes to win.

"For Bush, 55 electoral votes should be a lot more important than helping out a Democratic governor he may not like," said Republican consultant Dan Schnur, longtime press secretary for ex-Gov. Pete Wilson.

Some Democrats like what they're seeing.

"One risk for Bush," said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, "is being seen as standing with his Texas energy industry buddies against the state of California and California consumers."

No matter, the Bush-ites seem to say.

"This is fundamentally a supply question," said one top adviser to the president, demonstrating the new administration's fundamental lack of knowledge and understanding of what's happened here. "It is a problem that has been created by California."

That may be true to some degree, but power producers based mostly in Texas precipitated the crisis by selling much of their California production out of state in order to maximize profits.

Essentially, the Bush approach appears to be one of letting California stew. The question for the president may come down to this: Do I act to help California consumers or do I sit tight and allow Enron and the others to continue charging sky-high prices? Besides being a Bush donor, Enron chief Kenneth Lay is one of his leading energy advisers. Which makes it no surprise that so far, it looks like Bush will do little or nothing — and run the risk of casting himself and his local party allies as villains in this state for years to come.

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