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California Had Better Adapt to the Life of an Unfavorite Son

March 04, 2001|Tony Quinn | Tony Quinn is co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of state legislative and congressional races

SACRAMENTO — A minor exchange in the confirmation hearings of the new Energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, underscored the emerging reality that California is about to be cast free from federal protection and will be forced to survive the energy crisis on its own. Sen. Gordon Smith, an Oregon Republican, complained to Abraham that the Clinton administration forced out-of-state energy producers to sell power to California. As a result, he said, Oregonians were paying higher rates and experiencing shortages. Two weeks later, the new Bush administration canceled the mandatory sales.

Which squeaky wheel won in this confrontation? Oregon, whose GOP senator faces reelection in two years in a state that Bush barely lost? Or California, the behemoth that gave Vice President Al Gore a win by 1.2 million votes?

Oregon, to be sure, as will Washington, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas anytime any of them comes into conflict with California over energy.

Throughout Bill Clinton's eight years, California received any favor his administration could give. Clinton's and Gore's political fates were so tied to California that Democrats believed there was no way Republicans could win the presidency without the Golden State. They were almost proven correct.

The Bush administration sees a different world, and much as it may deny it, it will favor any Western and Southwestern state over California. Bush's reelection in 2004 will depend on his carrying some states he barely lost last year, and no three states fit that bill better than Oregon, Washington and New Mexico. New Mexico's result was the closest in the nation: Gore won by 366 votes. The former vice president carried Oregon by only 6,765 votes, and Washington by a more comfortable 138,788 votes. But the margin in all three state pales in comparison with the 1.3 million votes by which Gore carried California.

This is not to say that Bush could not carry California in 2004, but if he does, he will carry 45 other states. The political fact of life is that California's overwhelming Democratic margins in the past three presidential contests now work against us.

So do demographic trends. California has gotten more Democratic because, in part, its Republicans have moved to Arizona, Nevada, Oregon and Colorado. George W. Bush's narrow win in Nevada--by 21,597 votes--may have come from transplanted California Republicans. His near-miss in Oregon, where he did considerably better than his father in 1988, rested almost entirely on GOP strength in eastern Oregon, where many retired Californians live.

These demographic trends suggest that California will become ever more Democratic, while its neighbors become ever more Republican. So which states will a Republican White House favor?

Bush will not give California the boot; he will work to resolve the energy crisis here because it affects the entire West, indeed, the whole nation. But when conflicts arise among the states, no one should expect Bush to favor California.

The Bush administration's attitude toward California could be the mirror image of the Clinton administration's toward the Mountain West. Every time Clinton wanted to curry favor with environmentalists, he declared another national monument in Utah or Idaho. These states' congressional delegations howled their heads off, but it didn't matter because they formed no part of the Clinton political base.

Bush's relative indifference to California could be a blessing in disguise, though, because one thing the electricity crisis has made abundantly clear is that California depends too much on out-of-state power, and rapidly growing Western states won't sell it to us forever. California must produce its own sources of power--or go without.

Democrats are being advised privately to blame the state's energy woes on Bush because he has balked at imposing wholesale price caps as the Clinton administration did. And they surely will if blackouts roll across the state this summer. Yet, with few friends in high places, California's Democrats face the reality of their great political success over the past decade. They are going to have to fix the energy problem all by themselves.

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