When the lights go dark, this is what Gov. Gray Davis wants us to see: President Bush and V.P. Dick Cheney smirking as their Texas pals make off with our money.
Shutting down power and killing jobs on their way out the door.
This is pre-summer, a time for creating images that will stay with us through the blackout season and into next year’s elections.
The image Davis is trying to implant in our senses is that of the president and the power profiteers in collusion. Texans in cahoots. Bush and the bullies.
Actually, it’s an easy portrait to paint--an oil landscape with these scenes reflecting reality:
Bush and Cheney come from Texas oil backgrounds. Texas energy companies bankroll Bush running for president. The companies hit a gusher in California’s botched deregulation. Our electricity costs soar from $7 billion in 1999 to $27 billion in 2000 and may top $60 billion this year. Supply and demand? Demand increased less than 4% last year.
Davis pleads for temporary wholesale price caps. Bush and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission won’t hear of it. They also ignore California’s findings of $6.3 billion in gouging.
Davis has been drawing this picture with increasing fervor--in a Washington Post op-ed piece, in Saturday’s official Democratic response to the president’s weekly radio address, in Q&As;:
“Where is that money going? Simply put, into the pockets of the generators and marketers . . . many of them located in Texas. . . .
“Mr. President, with all due respect, I urge you to stand up to your friends in the energy business and exercise the federal government’s exclusive responsibility to ensure energy prices are reasonable. . . .
“Californians want to know whether you’re going to be on their side. . . . You’re allowing the price-gouging energy companies to get away with murder.”
Independent pollster Mark Baldassare puts it in context: “We’re at the point in this crisis where people soon will begin to reassign blame.”
Until now, fingers have been pointed at past actors--former Gov. Pete Wilson, the 1996 Legislature, the private utilities. Now, present performances are being scrutinized--not only Bush’s, but especially Davis’. He’s vulnerable for having reacted slowly to the emerging crisis last summer.
A new Baldassare poll being released today by the Public Policy Institute of California tells the story: The familiar utilities, Wilson and the old Legislature are blamed by 58% of Californians for the current mess. Davis and the present Legislature, the enigmatic power generators and the Bush administration are blamed by only 28%.
“People are going to stop thinking about what happened five years ago and start focusing on what’s happening this year,” Baldassare says. “How will those 58% get reallocated? Their attitudes are going to be shaped in the next month or so. That’s what all the political maneuvering is about right now.”
It’s why Davis is starting to name generators--like Houston-based Reliant Energy--and tie them to the president from Texas. It’s why he keeps repeating: “Mr. President, you didn’t create this problem. But you are the only one who can solve it.”
Davis also thinks it’s conceivable a pressured president will reverse himself and support temporary price caps. If not that, some “creative price relief.” One option, he says, is for FERC to acknowledge the massive gouging and order huge refunds.
Until lately, Davis had been deferential toward the new president.
“Initially, the governor felt he could reason with the Bush administration,” says Garry South, his political advisor. “But he really got ticked off when it became clear that not only was the administration unsympathetic, but most likely was hanging us out to dry. Especially galling were Cheney’s inaccurate and irresponsible--not to mention haughty--comments about California.”
Cheney recently told The Times he’d oppose price caps even if runaway energy costs threatened the nation’s economy.
Baldassare’s poll shows the political volatility. Davis’ job rating has dropped significantly since January--down from 63% approval then to 46% now, with 41% disapproval. Only 29% approve of the way he’s handling electricity; 60% disapprove.
Bush’s job rating is high--57% to 36%--but only 33% approve of his performance on electricity; 56% disapprove.
People are focused on this debacle--82% following it “closely” in the news. Opinions are shifting. Images are being shaped.
If Bush could open his mind, broaden his ideology and provide price relief--truly be a compassionate conservative--maybe he’d be a hero.
If not, Davis will be painting that Texas landscape all summer long.