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Bush likely to feel fallout from high gas prices, rolling blackouts

Politics of energy woes

Posted: Wednesday, May 09, 2001

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's pollsters are watching uneasily as gas prices and rolling blackouts fuel voter anxiety.

His energy team has scoured the policy landscape but has found no short-term solutions. His political advisers have struggled to explain to the skeptical that there is precious little a president can do to lower energy bills.

And now Bush's allies, in the White House and throughout Republican circles, are whispering the words ''Jimmy Carter'' as they worry about political damage. The Democratic president was defeated in 1980, partly because of fallout from the 1970s energy crisis.

''Clearly, all the events and forces that put us in this position occurred before President Bush took office. Consequently, at this point few people blame him for it,'' said Republican pollster Witt Ayres of suburban Atlanta. ''Eventually, however -- and I don't know when this will happen -- he takes ownership of the problem.''

Interviews with several political operatives, including Republicans close to Bush, reveal a growing consensus that the president will have a difficult time avoiding political fallout if gasoline prices continue to rise and electricity shortages in California spread throughout the nation.

They're hoping that Bush gets credit for providing leadership -- if not quick fixes -- with the release next week of a comprehensive energy plan.

''They will see he has a plan, has a vision and has a roadmap for many summers to come,'' said White House adviser Dan Bartlett.

Not everybody is so patient.

California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat fighting for his political life, has accused Bush of not doing enough to help ease the state's electricity crunch.

Republicans in California have warned the White House of potential fallout, prompting Bush to dispatch Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to the state last week. Bush himself is trying to fit a California trip into his schedule.

In Washington, Republican lawmakers are warning the White House that their constituents want solutions now -- and may take their anger out on the GOP-controlled Congress in 2002. Some GOP members of Congress have talked about reducing the 18 cents-per-gallon federal gasoline tax, an option the White House has reluctantly left open.

Abraham faced tough questions Tuesday from Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike about Bush's plans to cut energy research by about 30 percent, with some programs involving solar and wind energy slashed in half.

''These cuts are unacceptable,'' Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., told Abraham.

Republicans are afraid of the political cost of high energy prices.

''We've got the rolling blackouts and the gas prices dominating the national news. For Republicans to maintain their control of Congress, they need to have something in the short term,'' said Republican consultant Scott Reed of Washington. ''We don't want to be the ostrich party and stick our head in the sand.''

Eager to avoid blame, the White House has pointed fingers everywhere -- even at the first Bush administration -- for the lack of a national energy policy.

Trying to lower expectations, Vice President Dick Cheney said creating energy policy is difficult work. ''If it was easy the Clinton administration would have done it,'' he told CNN. ''They ducked if for eight years.''

Bush, however, made it sound easy during the presidential campaign.

''What I think the president ought to do,'' he said in January 2000, when heating oil prices were soaring in key campaign states, ''is he ought to get on the phone with the OPEC cartel and say, 'We expect you to open your spigots!'''

Since then, gasoline prices have crept above $2 per gallon with some suggesting that the Midwest could see pump prices hit the unthinkable $3-per-gallon level. California, in a preview of a summer of woes, experienced its fifth day of blackouts Monday and more were expected Tuesday.

The Republican National Committee, which pays for polling used by Bush's advisers, has surveys that show the economy overtaking education for the first time in years as voters' top issue. The margin is narrow in RNC polls, but much wider in favor of the economy in public polls.

Energy costs, also rising as a concern in RNC polling, are affecting voters' views of the economy, according to Ayres and other GOP pollsters.

One senior Republican close to Bush said there are rising fears of a ''Carter factor.''

The pressure has caused some grumbling in the usually united White House; some advisers complained privately last week about a Cheney speech that seemed to dismiss conservation efforts.

But the president's allies say he won't fall into the Carter trap because the comprehensive energy plan will show him at least trying to ease costs.

One senior Bush aide said some of the cost-saving measures in the plan will begin taking effect in six months to a year -- in time to help the party prepare for 2002 elections.

''I don't think President Bush will look like Jimmy Carter,'' Ayres said. ''He'll use his expertise in the oil business and politics to do whatever is possible.''

Ron Fournier has covered the White House and national politics since 1993.



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