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The Big Energy President

In her latest Political Points commentary, CBS News Senior Political Editor Dotty Lynch takes a look at the politics behind the Bush administration's national energy report.

Finally the polls and politics kicked in and the dreaded C-word (conservation) went into the Cheney-Bush energy plan when it was officially unveiled on Thursday. But for the past few weeks, the true colors of this pro-production, Big Energy administration have been on full display.

As has become standard operating procedure, in January, W. put Dick Cheney in charge of the task force to develop an energy policy. For Cheney, this task force may have been first among equals.

According to the Washington Post, there were meetings with about 200 groups interested in the issue, and Cheney himself met with over 20 top energy industry officials, including Bush Pioneer Ken Lay, chairman of Enron, which gave over $1.7 million to Bush-Cheney and the Republican Party for the last campaign.

One of Cheney's most public moments during this mostly private process was on April 30, when he said in Toronto that conservation "may be a sign of personal virtue but it is not a sound basis for a comprehensive energy policy."

This directly contradicts the public's sentiment.

In a CBS News poll conducted last week, 60 percent believe the government's priority should be to encourage conservation, while only 26 percent believe it should be to increase production. This raises the question of why it's been so hard for this administration to grasp the politics of energy and environmental issues when they've been so deft in handling the social issues like abortion and education.

While the public favors "protecting the environment" over "producing energy" by 58-32 percent, they view Mr. Bush as favoring energy over the environment by a 66-12 percent margin. Mr. Bush's bright idea that people should use their tax cut to pay for high gas prices hasn't gone over too well either. The public perception of Mr. Bush and Cheney as two oilmen who are beholden to an industry which contributed heavily to them and their campaign has been exacerbated by these remarks.

The fact is that that perception may not be far off. Cheney, who said last September that he would forfeit all stock options in Halliburton if he were elected, still in fact holds about $7 million in stock options that can't be exercised yet. (The exact amount won't be known until they are exercised, but Halliburton doubled its first quarter earnings this year because of increased drilling due to higher oil and natural gas prices.) Instead of turning them back, he announced that he would donate them to three charitiesincluding George Washington University Hospital, where he has been treated for heart problems. This will entitle him to a nice charitable tax deduction (which he'll need since Halliburton gave him a bnus of $1.4 million this January to top off the $30 million or so he received last year) and possibly some good care at the Richard B. Cheney Cardiovascular Institute.

Despite the personal fortunes Mr. Bush and Cheney have made in the energy business, their pro-production orientation probably has less to do with personal gain than with their core beliefs. The political problem is that these beliefs are so far out of whack with the American public that they've caused themselves a public relations problem and have given the Democrats a huge opening. So far Democrats been unable to get traction from the tax or social issues but here, at last, they have the seized the political high ground to paint the Republicans with their favorite brush: being for the big interests against the average guy and gal.

On Friday, the White House brought in a number of GOP strategists and beltway chatterers to sell them on the energy plan and get some nervous Republicans on board. Briefing the group were Cheney, Karl Rove and Mary Matalin, all armed with background papers detailing how "comprehensive" the plan was and how claims that conservation, renewable resources and environmental concerns were missing were just plain wrong.

President Bush continued his spokesman-in-chief role in the heartland this week and plans to visit California for the first time since he election during the Memorial Day recess. Word is that Californians are "wild" about blackouts and skyrocketing utility costs and are angry that Mr. Bush wonÂ't use the federal government to cap or lower prices. And, the governor, Gray Davis who has national ambitions, is eager to take Mr. Bush on and shift the blame to the feds and Texas-based energy gougers.

Let's hope that the lights don't go out.

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