- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2001

If being president were easy, Mount Rushmore would have to be a lot larger than it is. Between now and June, the Bush presidency will be tested on two critical issues: campaign-finance reform and the California energy crisis. If he gets those two right, he will be on track to a presidency of Reaganite dimensions. If he gets either of them wrong, his presidency may shrivel to the size of Jimmy Carters.
Assuming something close to McCain/Feingold gets to his desk, Mr. Bush has only one principled and practical decision he must veto it, or be judged irrelevant by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. On March 15, he announced key principles by which he would judge any campaign-finance bill: no ban on individual soft money donations, and the inclusion of the paycheck protection provision that requires labor unions to obtain authorization from each dues payer before spending those dues on political campaigns.
The Senate specifically rejected both of those provisions, but final passage was by eight votes less than would be needed to override his veto. Thus, Mr. Bush has it within his power to block a bill of which he specifically said he disapproved. A veto would not only be good policy, but would send a forceful signal that his opinion is not to be trifled with. He would also show he is tough enough not to go weak at the knees at the thought of vetoing a "popular" bill. For the remaining years of his presidency he would, thereby, carry a very big stick with Congress, and would likely get his way on countless future legislative battles. But if he signed such a bill he would show all the power players in Washington that he doesnt take his own words seriously, and thus nobody else would either.
The smart decision on the California energy crisis, on the other hand, will require not steadfastness, but an exercise in practicality and the ability to go against the wishes of many of his supporters. In May or June, California will face a real energy shortage that will be the product of foolish "no growth" state policies, inexcusable temporizing by California Gov. Davis, a shocking shortage of hydroelectric power because of a water shortage in the Northwest and one other unpleasant fact: Several Texas and Oklahoma energy producers have effectively cornered the spot electricity market and are charging up to 10 times the pre-crisis price.
They will force California to pay up to $70 billion at wholesale level for energy in 2001. The same amount of energy cost only $7 billion in 1999 and $27 billion in 2000. If Mr. Bush allows that to happen the California economy could melt down, taking the national economy with it. Mr. Bush could, consistent with pure free market principles, let those events unfold. He would be vastly wiser to reverse his current hands-off policy and force California into a grand compromise. He could agree to limit the spot market price to cost plus generous profit (rather than market rates) for 18-24 months in exchange for California passing legislation assuring quick siting procedures for new power plants and a return to genuine free market energy once those plants are on-line.
He would thereby save California from its well-deserved but nonetheless unacceptable energy and economic calamity, minimize the risk of a deep national economic downturn and give Republicans a solid chance to regain political viability in now solidly Democratic California. Thats not a bad days work, in my book. But to do this he will have to face down some of his strongest supporters and friends in the energy business as well as many free-market Republicans. Powerful, successful presidents often have to face down their own side and their received convictions. His allies wont like him for it, but if the policy works they will respect him. As President Nixon once said: "If your political base is too happy, youre doing something wrong."
There are, of course, many other decisions that will shape his reputation the denouement of the current Sino-American standoff, the play-out of his tax bill, the final form of his education initiative and his role in stopping or permitting the Delta Airline Pilots strike at the end of the month.
But campaign-finance provides the most vivid measure of the man, while the still badly underestimated California energy crisis, if allowed to fully develop, is likely to shake the nation to its core. If California melts down this summer, so will the Bush presidency just as surely as the Depression destroyed the presidency of Herbert Hoover. These two outcomes are largely within Mr. Bushs own power. How he exercises that power substantially will determine how much power he will have in the future.
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