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Jewish World Review Jan. 26, 2001 / 3 Shevat, 5761

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg
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Sometimes, doing nothing is the right action

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- "DON'T JUST DO something, stand there." It's an old definition of conservatism - often attributed to Adlai Stevenson, though it's probably a lot older than that - but a good one. While it's meant as a criticism of conservative laziness, doing nothing actually takes a lot of work and is, more often than not, the right course of action.

The last American president to pull off doing nothing on principle was Calvin Coolidge, who once bragged about his place in history. "Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business," he said.

President Bush will have to work pretty hard to meet Coolidge's standard, but he is displaying a Coolidge-esque (and Reaganesque) instinct to ignore the chorus of those who say every problem is Washington's problem.

California - the leader of the world's tech boom and the sixth-largest economy in the world, if you measure it as its own country - is experiencing the sort of rolling blackouts typical of North Korea or the Congo. The state's economy is in danger of sputtering to a standstill like a Russian bus on a hill.

Politically, California is the prom queen of presidential elections; if it loves you, you're a winner. If Bush wants to get re-elected in 2004 (or gain congressional seats for the GOP in 2002), he needs California. After all, Bush was the first GOP candidate to win the White House without winning California since at least James A. Garfield in 1880 (another messy election).

And yet, for the most part, Bush is playing the part of Silent Cal on California. On his first workday, the Bush Administration signaled to the Golden State that it has to clean up its own mess.

Bush hasn't been an absolute purist; the energy department helped a bit by requiring out-of-state energy suppliers to continue selling surplus energy to California for a couple of weeks. But Bush has refused, on principle, to use his federal emergency powers to impose price caps or force cheap sales of energy to the West Coast as a solution to the energy crisis there.

This is a serious break with the last eight years. Bill Clinton and Al Gore made down payments on California's 54 electoral votes - in the form of agricultural bailouts, disaster relief, grants and construction contracts - almost constantly. From 1993 to the summer of 2000, Gore visited California 65 times. Last week, Clinton held negotiations with all of the California power players almost literally until he had to clean out his White House desk.

In this moment where bipartisanship and gitchy-goo good government is all the rage, the temptation for Bush to show the Golden State how much he loves them must be even stronger than his desire to punish them for not voting for him.

But by resisting, Bush is - to borrow a phrase from Al Gore - taking the hard right over the easy wrong. California needs to be taught a lesson: Clinton gave the state fish; Bush, by doing nothing to help the state, is teaching it how to fish.

Plenty of states have deregulated their electric industries without getting into trouble as California has. California is inthis mess because politicians overregulated the deregulation process, partly because they listened to their constituents too much.

The end result wasn't deregulation but a "restructuring" that did not install market mechanisms, by any stretch of the imagination. Consumer rates were frozen, while supplies became more expensive and companies were denied the flexibility to adjust to the changing marketplace.

It's as if Californians think everything comes as easily as endless sunny days. We'll just pass a law that says we should have cheap electricity and we'll have it!

Kevin Starr, the California state librarian and a historian, told The New York Times recently, "Once again, Californians have to be alerted to the fact that they have to earn California, that it doesn't come for free. Massachusetts knows that. New York knows that. Any place where it snows knows that. Californians have to learn that again and again."

Well, Bush is teaching them. Hopefully, this time the lesson will stick.



To comment on JWR contributor Jonah Goldberg's column click here.

Up


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01/15/01: Dems never tire of using 'race card'
01/11/01: Taking the celebrity out of politics
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