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Political Analysis by Shields and York

August 15, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: The analysis of Shields and York. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Byron York of National Review. David Brooks is on vacation. Well, gentlemen, a huge event like this blackout, Byron, is there going to be political fallout from this?

BYRON YORK: It’s already started. There are two issues here. The partisan issue and the actual policy issue. And the partisan….

MARGARET WARNER: You mean they’re different.

BYRON YORK: The partisan fighting got started about a minute and a half into the blackout. Senator Clinton helped get it started by blaming some of this on the Bush administration. I believe Mr. Gephardt, Democratic presidential candidate said some similar things today. The problem I think for Democrats and Senator Clinton usually has very good political instincts and I think she may have made a misstep here is that the Republicans have a very good defense on this. If you go back and look at the vice president’s much maligned energy report, the report of his energy task force released in 2001, it calls specifically for upgrading the electricity grids. It said “transmission grids stand in need of repair, upgrading and expansion. If we put these connections in place, it will go a long way toward avoiding future blackouts.” And some of these suggestions were incorporated in the energy bill which hasn’t passed yet on Capitol Hill. And the president’s supporters will be able to say this has been a big deal for a long time for us and we put it in this bill and it still has not passed.

MARGARET WARNER: Why hasn’t it passed?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Margaret, welcome Byron, nice to have you here, but quite frankly that’s each side began today by going back to something in the past. This comes out of the vice president, one of the less well known and less widely circulated documents in Washington, the vice president’s energy report. The only thing it was known for was the anonymity of the people who participated in its composition.

And the reality is that one is hard pressed to find a moment which is a voice clip of George W. Bush saying we must upgrade the grid at a cost of $56 billion, as estimated by the industry research. And this is basically the cost of about a year in Iraq. The reality is that this has been a warning. We have doubled the consumption in the past ten years. And we’ve increased the production by less than 15 percent. It’s been coming. So you have one side saying, ah, the unvarnished, unalloyed joy of deregulation.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean that that’s the answer?

MARK SHIELDS: Deregulation was the problem and it was the answer. Deregulation was the problem because we get the Feds off the back and look at what the energy companies will do when given their opening, and the other side is saying look at the damn environmentalists; they’ve stopped us from doing these things. That’s what you see.

The president this afternoon, late this afternoon, appointed a commission to study what had gone wrong, called it a wakeup call. And I, you know, what will happen politically… will it be a political issue? Yes. Will it be political action — if someone wants to confront the reality of $56 billion dollars.

MARGARET WARNER: That is the question because the president said we need to modernize the grid. Do you think this is going to change the calculus when Congress comes back in September on this bill?

BYRON YORK: It absolutely will. First thing, the vice president’s energy report was a big deal because his opponents made such a big deal of it being produced in secret with Ken Auletta and something like that. The substance of it was not as big a deal.

However, in the energy bill that the president proposed, there are provisions to upgrade the grid. And I believe those provisions to improve the grid are not the ones that are causing the real partisan deadlock over the energy bill. That was stuff like drilling in Alaska, auto mileage standards — that kind of stuff. I think for people like me, who like partisan fights, the dirty truth may be that there is a relative agreement that this needs to be done. But Congress felt at the time that it was not urgent enough for immediate action.

Now everybody has changed their mind on that. So I think yes, it is going to have a lot of action when they come back in September.

MARGARET WARNER: Where would they find the money?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s not in the Senate bill. It’s in the House bill. But that’s the question. Where will the money come from? Deregulation was sold on the basis that it would be more efficient without the regulation, therefore there would be lower rates. The only way you get the companies to pay for this is to raise the rates. And there is a regional fight in the Congress as well. Southerners are apprehensive, and legitimately so, that they ‘re going to have to be on the ticket for picking up the bill for northern consumers.

The one place where it played well politically yesterday was probably in Sacramento where Gray Davis could say, unlike Baghdad and New York City and Bakersfield, they didn’t have electricity shortages.

MARGARET WARNER: Now the rest of the country knows what this is like.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: Speaking of Gray Davis, this has not been a great week for him, has it?

BYRON YORK: No. As a matter of fact, the really devastating news is the new field poll that came out which showed of likely voters, only 37 percent said they would vote to keep him in office. 58 percent said they would vote to recall him and a very small 5 percent said they hadn’t made up their mind yet. Job approval, 22 percent. Job approval among Democrats, 41 percent and 49 percent disapproval among Democrats. It’s looking really bad for him.

MARGARET WARNER: Is he in danger, Mark, of losing the support and money from some of his really traditional allies, the labor unions, the environmental groups and so on?

MARK SHIELDS: Yeah, they have to face a crunch decision. Is it going to be tougher to get 51 percent for Gray Davis in that first question of keeping him in office, or would the resources, time and energy be better directed trying to keep Sacramento and the governor’s chair out of the control of the Republicans by trying to get Cruz Bustamante, the lieutenant governor, the second part of the question, up to 35 percent thus enabling him to win.

So I think you’ll see labor and teachers, environmentalists, groups like that, long time supporters of Gray Davis, facing that very soon, the formulation that Bustamante came up with vote no on recall but yes on Bustamante may start to appeal to many traditional Democratic constituencies.

MARGARET WARNER: Is it impossible for the Democrats to put money into vote. Vote no on the recall but if it passes, vote yes for Bustamante, or is it an either/or —

BYRON YORK: The problem with the no-yes strategy is that it is a terribly mixed message. This recall is wrong, don’t vote for it but if you do, please vote for Cruz Bustamante. The fundamental problem for Democrats is that a general election is coming up and there are two Democratic candidates.

A vote against the recall is a vote for Gray Davis. And then you can vote for Bustamante and both men are trying to raise money. And I think Mark is right. What you are going to see is a snowballing effect because a lot of the labor unions were saying just a week ago that they were going to put all their resources into stop the recount. Now they’re looking at Bustamante a little bit. If more polls come out showing Davis in such bad shape, I think you could really see a move to Bustamante.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger the other most high profile candidate in this race, the polls showed him at the top of the field. But he has a lot of competition now that the final list is out, for a Republican vote.

MARK SHIELDS: There is a little bit of a civil war among Republicans. California Republicans have, you know, long been split into two warring camps: The true believer conservatives and sort of the moderate Pete Wilson kind, let’s win an election in November and mute our differences.

And what you have now in pro-gun control, pro-gay rights, pro-choice in abortion, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is an opponent who looks formidable in an election but there are problems in the traditional base of the party, and plus the shortage of a profile, of any substance to him.

So this week he took a leaf out of President Bush’s playbook in 2000. Remember the president who had no foreign experience at all, associated himself, joined at the hip with Colin Powell. Anything he wants in the administration is his. He has done that with Warren Buffett, the financier, the $30 billion financier, and with George Shultz and sort of association. One mistake he may have made is with Pete Wilson; the aforementioned Pete Wilson who gratuitously reminded voters of Proposition 187, which Latinos now regard as immigrant bashing in 1994, which Pete Wilson used to win reelection in a very difficult political year.

MARGARET WARNER: Schwarzenegger this week seemed to avoid, Byron, any events where he had to take questions about issues, and I noticed that this debate that’s been set up for September, he is the only one of the major candidates who didn’t readily accept. What do you think the strategy is there? Do you think he is going to be able to coast through without engaging issues or do you think they’re just biding their time?

BYRON YORK: First of all, it is not unusual for the candidate who has the most to lose to come around last participating in a debate. I think that he has to do some work solidifying his conservative base, because Mark left out one factor that the conservatives are upset with Schwarzenegger about, which is the economy, which is the most important factor. It is not only abortion, gun control, things like that. Schwarzenegger’s new financial adviser, Warren Buffett, is quoted today as talking about it might be necessary to increase taxes to deal with the $38 billion deficit. That is not going to sit well with the base, which believes, and I think correctly, that California’s spending has been just wildly out of control for many years.

So I think he has got to work on solidifying the base because you have to remember that Bill Simon, the conservative candidate who ran a pretty bad campaign, I believe got 44 percent of the vote last year. So I think Schwarzenegger has a ways to go to try to convince conservatives that he really is the one they should vote for.

MARGARET WARNER: Byron, Mark, thank you both.