Bush to California: Thanks for the Urgency

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The troubled Moss Landing power plant in California

If it is indeed better to be lucky than good, George W. Bush is already showing signs of greatness.

First it was the economic slowdown, which Bush could blame on Bill Clinton while using it to jump-start his tax cut. Now the California power crisis, which is Gray Davis's problem — "We're prepared to do those things that we can to help, but the basic problem in California was caused by California," as Dick Cheney said Sunday — but also a perfect soapbox for a Bush drill-'em-if-you-got-'em energy policy if there ever was one.

Bush on Monday named Cheney to head a special energy task force, additionally composed of Secretaries Paul O'Neill of Treasury, Don Evans of Commerce, Spencer Abraham of Energy, Ann Veneman of Agriculture and Norman Mineta of Transportation, and promised the group would "act boldly and swiftly" to keep California's woes from spreading nationwide.

Enter the Bush campaign boilerplate: The new president told the group he wanted a strategy on "how best to cope with high energy prices and how best to cope with reliance on foreign oil, how best to encourage the development of pipelines and power-generating capacity in the country."

Now, one could certainly argue that this high incidence of crisis-to-campaign-promise overlap shows prescience on Bush's part. One could also wonder how drilling in Arctic nature preserves will help San Francisco keep the lights on, especially when the time frame for California's power shortage is two or three years at best.

But that's chicken-and-egg stuff. What's undisputable is that the California deregulation mess makes Bush's more-energy policy much harder to dispute. And Americans' persistent abhorrence of paying more for gas, juice, anything, is all the political excuse he needs.

With a Democratic governor taking the Golden State heat (and Bob Rubin already doing advisory duties for Davis), Bush's main California concern is that the crunch will eat away at his goodwill with the kindred-spirit western red states that helped put him in office. (Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., complained to Bush last week that his state is "in jeopardy of becoming an energy farm to California," and Arizona's Gov. Jane Hull has aired similar beefs — understandably, as one of the state's utilities warns of 300 percent rate increases next month.

So the task force's first move is to send Abraham and Curt L. Hebert Jr., the newly appointed head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, to a regional feather-smoothing in Portland while they think about longer-term solutions. Next month, Bush is expected to hit up Mexican president Vicente Fox for more power plants for border states to plug into — they don't have many environmental lobbies south of the border.

But in the short term, Cheney and his task force look more like agenda salesmen, and California — which Monday was hashing over a complicated Chrysler-style quacks-like-a-bailout plan to save the utilities from bankruptcy — is clearly on its own.

"They should expect no more help from the White House," said Bush's top economic adviser, Larry Lindsey, on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday. "It's not that we don't want to give them the help. If we could send thunderbolts into the electric grid to run electricity, we would do it. We can't."

But they sure appreciate California's help setting the mood so early in his term.