California reaming

While Dick Cheney continues to blame the state's energy crisis on its Democratic governor, President Bush makes a rare visit. Can the oil patch kids ever solve their California problem?

Published May 28, 2001 4:35PM (EDT)

On the eve of President Bush's first post-election visit to California, relations between the White House and the state's political establishment have never been worse. Vice President Dick Cheney has painted Californians as granola-eating conservationists whose fear of building new power plants caused their current energy crisis. In turn, Gov. Gray Davis' senior strategist Garry South has savaged Bush and Cheney's home state, saying "Texas ain't exactly Shangri-La ... We have about as much in common with Midland, Texas, as we have with the moon," in a caustic reference to the president's oil-patch hometown.

But whatever Bush and Cheney's intentions, they may have given Davis an enormous political gift by escalating their anti-California rhetoric. The governor was facing rising criticism from the right and left for his handling of the energy mess. Now Californians are increasingly laying the blame for the crisis on Texas.

A new Field Poll shows that Californians place more blame at the feet of out-of-state energy providers -- read: Texas energy companies -- and President Bush for the current crisis than Gov. Davis. But numbers from the Public Policy Institute of California show Davis' approval ratings have dropped to 46 percent from 63 percent in January. Strikingly, Bush's 57 percent approval rating among Californians is higher than Davis', according to the PPIC poll.

Meanwhile, the caricature of the Californian as tree-hugging crybaby is beginning to appear in more and more columns and editorial pages nationwide, but especially in Texas. "California politicians blundered when they devised a deregulation scheme that capped consumer prices but encouraged wholesale prices to soar," the Houston Chronicle editorialized last week. "They have no more right to blame Texas for California's high electricity costs than Texans have a right to ask California to cap the price of movie tickets and video sales and rentals."

But plenty of salvos are being volleyed in the opposite direction. A recent Los Angeles Times editorial slammed the president's energy plan. "Both President Bush and Vice President Cheney are Texas oil patch veterans, which may explain, if not excuse, their backward-thinking energy policy ideas," the staff editorial railed.

Columnist Richard Rodriguez called for a virtual cease-fire last week, claiming that "a culture war is raging between America's two most populous states. It's California versus Texas, and neither side, at the moment, seems to be winning."

So when Bush the Texan travels to California this week, the media will be watching closely. California is hostile territory for Bush, and he is worried enough about the visit that he reportedly invited Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to chaperone the trip -- an offer McCain respectfully declined. So Bush will have to go it alone, following some harsh words from his vice president about the state's Democratic governor.

Cheney criticized the state just over a week ago for its "harebrained" deregulation scheme, and basically told the state to fix the problem on its own. "What's happened in California, I would argue, is they've taken the route of saying, 'Well, we can conserve our way out of the problem ... We don't have to produce any more power.' So they haven't built any electric power plants in the last 10 years in California, and today they've got rolling blackouts," Cheney stated in an interview with CNN's John King.

Davis in turn sharpened his attacks on Bush's friends in the energy business and at the federal government. "We are literally in a war with energy companies who are price gouging us," Davis told the Associated Press after Bush laid out his energy plan. "Many of those companies are in Texas. Mr. President, you didn't create this problem, but you are the only one who can solve it." These are the same companies that Davis has so lovingly referred to in the past as "the biggest snakes in the world."

Bush and Davis are expected to meet sometime during the president's 48-hour sojourn to the state this week, but burying the hatchet didn't seem to be on the agenda as Davis' allies are still obviously reeling from Cheney's comments.

"I sat there in stunned disbelief," said South, responding to Cheney's comments. "It is way below the vice president of the United States to puke all over a sitting governor of any state, of either party."

Clearly, Davis has ratcheted up his rhetoric since Bush unveiled his energy plan earlier this month. Since then, the California governor has returned to the finger-pointing he began in his State of the State address in January, when he laid the bulk of the power crisis at the feet of "out-of-state profiteers," and blasted the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, saying "it has shirked its responsibility to protect rate payers from this legalized highway robbery."

"Cheney has to be careful," said California Republican strategist Dan Schnur. "It's entirely appropriate for Cheney to be defending the administration against Davis' attacks. But he has to be careful they stay targeted at the governor, and not at the state of California."

But California Democrats were incensed at the vice president's remarks, calling it clear evidence of what they call a pattern of California bashing from the administration. "I've not seen this kind of attack since Nixon went after the Jews," said California Democratic Party political director Bob Mulholland, known for his overheated rhetoric. "The administration's attitude toward California is outrageous and unacceptable. They're treating us like a leper in a Third World country. I believe that [Bush strategist Karl] Rove is driving this. He will do whatever it takes to hurt California in an attempt to hurt Gray Davis."

As governor of the most populous state in the union, Davis is automatically mentioned in any short list of possible 2004 challengers for Bush. But since the energy crisis has taken hold, Davis' popularity has drooped and he is mentioned less often than he used to be as a potential contender.

In the Field Poll released last week, Davis' favorable ratings have fallen to 42 percent, down from 60 percent at the beginning of the year. Meanwhile, his unfavorables are at 49 percent, and he is in a dead heat in a hypothetical match-up with Los Angeles Republican Mayor Richard Riordan.

But while South had strong words for Cheney -- calling him an "annoying know-it-all who carries on in his inimitable arrogant and uninformed manner" -- he did say he believes the administration's differences with Davis on the energy crisis are, at the core, philosophical.

"I think that the underpinning of the federal government's unwillingness to take action here is mostly ideological. But I can tell you also that the thought of letting Gov. Davis twist in the wind is not one that causes them any particular discomfort. It is a calculation they have made that I think will come back and bite them in the butt."

One California Republican speaking on condition of anonymity concurred. "I don't think that's an administration strategy to target California," the source said. "But Cheney seems to get some special delight in sticking his finger in California's eye."

But South had criticisms for others in the administration as well. In particular, he criticized the administration for mischaracterizing a letter Davis sent to Bush "as a courtesy" months ago as evidence that Bush was sprinting to help California.

"When the White House ordered federal agencies to expedite the permitting process for new power plants, the governor sent him a four-sentence letter expressing his gratitude," South says. "Ari Fleischer stood up two or three times and suggested the governor was slavishly praising the president for all the actions he's taken to bail out California. The White House has taken those expressions of appreciation and used that to imply the governor is slobbering all over the president. They used the governor's natural tendency to be respectful and polite and turned it around against him to get the president off the hook."

Clearly, somewhere on the White House's California talking points, that letter is mentioned, because it came up again in a discussion with White House spokesman Jimmy Orr.

"The president is very concerned about the citizens of California," Orr said, "and he has laid out an energy policy which is comprehensive and forward looking and will increase the quality of life for all Americans. There was even a letter [Davis] sent to the president where the governor thanked the president for helping with the crisis in California. We are working toward a very positive approach. It's not helpful to point fingers or lay blame."

But blame is being thrown around like a baseball at a South Lawn T-ball game. To be fair, Davis inherited problems that stem from an ill-conceived deregulation scheme created by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and his allies on the Public Utilities Commission, and approved by unanimous votes in both houses of the state Legislature.

The plan forced the state's utilities to sell off their power plants, most of which were purchased by the state's largest energy producers -- companies that happen to be Texas-based. But the plan only deregulated half the market, allowing energy producers to charge market rates for wholesale energy. But the utilities, which under the plan serve as a sort of middleman, buying wholesale energy on the open market and delivering it to retail customers, were prevented from raising the retail price of energy.

With only a few companies controlling the state's energy supply, wholesale prices skyrocketed from 3 cents per kilowatt hour to more than 30 cents. The utilities were forced to absorb that cost, driving the state's largest utility -- Pacific Gas and Electric -- into bankruptcy.

Democrats, led by Davis, have been pressuring the FERC to implement caps on wholesale energy prices. But the commission, under direction from Bush and Cheney, has refused, even as conservative California Republicans join Democrats in the call for some federal relief.

"The president believes price caps create more problems than they solve," Orr said. "He believes price caps will prevent new supply from coming online."

With California forecasting blackouts throughout the summer -- and with some polls showing Davis losing ground to his little-known Republican challenger for governor in 2002 -- Davis has come out swinging against new, political enemies: those Texans in the White House, Bush and Cheney.

"Bush's numbers on energy are worse than the governor's," says South. "Any administration that thinks it can twiddle its thumbs when the largest state in the union has major problems is kidding itself. This is ultimately going to rub off onto Bush."

But Republican Dan Schnur says the president still has time to make things right in California. "Bush has not been damaged politically by the electricity crisis in California," he said. "But up until now the crisis has represented a missed opportunity to make up some significant political ground. Over the long term he might do the party some good by elevating his own stature here."

Still, as any honest Republican will tell you, "long term" is the operative phrase in that statement. Despite 15 campaign visits during his presidential run and at least $15 million, Bush lost California to Gore by 12 points. The state has a Democratic governor, two Democratic U.S. senators and strong Democratic majorities in both legislative houses. That means Democrats will be in total control when the state's political lines are redrawn to carve up 53 congressional districts, one more congressional seat than the state currently has.

And the party is suffering a leadership drought, with few rising stars who show signs of reversing this situation anytime soon. For a while the party's most exciting news was the possible gubernatorial bid of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the Austrian-born actor dashed the state GOP's hopes and ruled out a run last month.

And now, Davis is beginning his own reelection bid by hammering away on Bush and Cheney, and the administration's ties to the very firms that are profiting during the California crisis.

"He's not the CEO of Halliburton anymore. I know that's difficult for him to accept," South said of Cheney. "The vice president is clearly a smart man -- certainly brighter than George W. Bush. But some of the idiotic things he's said make me think he's got a lack of blood to the brain. If I were a White House operative, I would stuff a sock in his mouth as quickly as I could."

Bush has another problem in California. The state has always been hypersensitive when it comes to the attention it gets from politicians. It is the princess of the 50 states -- mindful of its own importance, and equally aware of the fact that it never receives the coddling and fawning that the citizens of the most economically powerful state expect.

For example: Every time candidate Bush rearranged his itinerary or changed a television spot, the California media was quick to proclaim he was shutting down his California campaign. The Bush campaign became attuned to this neurosis, and even went so far as to maintain a symbolic presence in California after the March primaries. The campaign kept a virtually unstaffed office open for business after the March primary season, while they shut down all their other satellite offices. That symbolic gesture was enough to keep the party rank and file and the media from feeling abandoned.

Watch how quick the California media will be to point out that this is Bush's first trip to California in his fifth month in the White House. This news will be delivered with a silent scoff and an invisible shake of the head -- emblematic of the latest manifestation of the permanent-neglect psychosis taking hold in the California press is that Bush has written off California as unwinnable for the foreseeable future.

But Schnur dismissed the charges that Bush had given up on California. "He's pivoting from his tax cut and education package to another set of issues, so it makes sense for him to broaden his geographical reach as well," he said.

But when asked if Bush's trip West could, in any real way, help revitalize the state's Republican Party, Schnur was less than optimistic. "It would be a mistake to look at this as a one shot deal," he said euphemistically, before offering his assessment of the state of the party: "I haven't been able to detect a pulse."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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