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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Next davis tactic: Declaring war on Bush, Wilson?

April 24, 2001

You are Gov. Gray Davis. Your poll numbers are deep in the tank just 18 months before you're up for re-election. You're looking at the threat of becoming the first elected California governor in 60 years who didn't win a second term.

It's all because of the energy crisis, and you're convinced that's not your fault. But people keep bringing up your January "no new rate hikes" pledge, on which you reneged less than three months later. The Washington Post editorializes that you are "displaying … cowardice."

What do you do?

Maybe you've been watching, "The Practice," the hit television series where defense lawyers continually use "Plan B" to get their slime bag clients off the hook. What's Plan B? That's when defense lawyers facing public demands for conviction of their clients go after a prosecution witness. As in the O.J. case.

Why not Plan B, George W. Bush, who's been the leading prosecution witness in the energy mess? He may even trail you in political popularity in California. This guy is the first president since the 19th century to get elected without so much as a plurality of the votes. Bush managed to lose California by 12 percent last year to Al Gore, who you know was a stiff as a candidate, even though he spent twice as much here as Gore did.


Bush and his flunkies, Vice President Dick Cheney and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, keep saying this thing is all California's fault.

"This is a problem created by California and California will have to solve it," Cheney pronounced on a national talk show in January. Meanwhile, Bush's Texas energy company cronies are getting rich.

Some California polls are even suggesting if this goes on, we might as well fly the Lone Star flag over the state capitol in Sacramento and toss out the old Bear Flag Republic banner.

So why not attack Bush? You've played Mr. Nice Guy with him long enough, asking for help in solving the crisis and getting none.

Yes, Bush has the power to solve most of it almost overnight. He appoints the members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has the power to cap wholesale prices for interstate sales of both electricity and natural gas, but does nothing. The law that set up the commission even says it must act in situations like this, mandating that it keep prices "fair and reasonable."

It is neither fair nor reasonable for Californians to pay five times more for natural gas than folks in the Northeast when it comes from the same place. Nor is it fair or reasonable that wholesale power prices are now 10 times higher than one year ago.

"FERC's failure to control costs has precipitated an increase in rates," you said in an understated letter to the commission last week. Other state officials say the overcharge amounts to at least $6 billion.

What does Bush's FERC chairman, Curt Hebert, say to this? Time after time, he claims price caps would suppress supply and make the situation worse. Bush controls Hebert and Hebert controls the commission agenda. He won't even allow a vote on controls.

It's never easy for a governor to openly attack a sitting president. But why keep making nice when Bush keeps showing he has it in for California? You can see it in his budget plans, which aim to cut funds for lots of state programs, from mass transit to disaster relief in case of floods or earthquakes and even jail construction. If Bush hated you (which he may), he couldn't do much worse.

You have about $30 million in your campaign kitty, a massive sum intended in part to scare off potential challengers. When they look at your latest poll results, they're not exactly petrified. Maybe you should spend some of that money now to buck up your polls and put some terror in their bellies.

Maybe you should run some TV commercials focusing on how you courageously faced down the price-gouging power producers and the feds (Oops, you didn't do that). Maybe you should run some spots that blame the whole thing on the Republicans (Now, that's a little more your speed).

After all, you and the other Democrats made huge headway by vilifying ex-Gov. Pete Wilson for being anti-immigrant. That's where those huge Democratic margins among Latino voters came from. Why not play the anti-Wilson card again, along with the anti-Bush card? What a pair! One signed off on deregulation and still says it's a great thing, believe it or not. The other stands by while his buddies get rich off it.

You also remember Wilson himself was way down in the polls about this far before his own reelection in 1994. He turned it around by attacking illegal immigrants. You can turn the tables on him, if you choose.

Suddenly, things don't seem quite so glum, do they? Even if the next blackout could come at any minute.

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