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Why Didn't We See the Blackout Coming?

Aired August 15, 2003 - 16:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left: James Carville and Paul Begala. On the right: Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson.

In the CROSSFIRE, politics unplugged. Why didn't we see the blackout coming?

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), NEW MEXICO: We've been warning for years. I went around the country saying these blackouts are going to happen.

ANNOUNCER: It's time for some grid talk, and we don't mean football.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will view this rolling blackout as a wake-up call.



ANNOUNCER: Live from the George Washington University, Paul Begala and Robert Novak.



Washingtonians have always suspected that New Yorkers were in the dark. Today, we'll find out who is trying to make political capital out of this incident. But before we get to that, you get the most electrifying political briefing in television, our CROSSFIRE Political Alert.

Gray Davis definitely has a problem. The more he campaigns against his recall, the more the voters of California want to get rid of him as governor. The non-partisan Field Poll shows 58 percent of likely voters want Davis recalled. That's up from 51 percent.

His approval rating hit a low, just 22 percent. Sentiment for the governor's recall now extends across almost every age group, education level, ethnic group, and region of California. Is it time for him to resign as governor and give his lieutenant governor a head start in the recall election? If you think Gray Davis might really do that, you just don't know Gray Davis. PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Well, also, if you think he should do that, you don't respect the will of the voters. Eight million Californians voted for this guy. He's done nothing wrong in office. There's no malfeasance; there's no criminality.

He's unpopular. By the way, he's unpopular because Bush trashed the economy. That's why he's getting all of the blame. I think it's unfair.


NOVAK: That's good spin, Paul. He's unpopular because he lied to the voters in the campaign. He said you didn't have to increase taxes and they had to increase taxes. So that is the sign of the cross for the vampire, the increased tax.

BEGALA: Well, let's see what we do with the President, who didn't tell the truth about nuclear weapons, then, if that's what you do with taxes.

Well, after taking a pounding from some patriotic Democrats, our President is backing away from his administration's plan to cut the pay -- cut the pay, that is -- of our servicemen and women in Iraq. Until the Democrats spoke out, President Bush's Pentagon was reportedly planning on ending the $75 a month in imminent danger pay and the $150 a month in family separation allowances paid to our brave troops in Iraq. President Bush even had the gall yesterday to strut around in front of Marines in southern California, inexplicably wearing a military jacket in the near 90-degree August heat.

You know, I have an idea, though. Instead of playing dress-up soldier, maybe our President should try living on the cheapskate salaries he pays them.

NOVAK: You know, Paul, unless you have some information that I don't know about, the Pentagon never said it was cutting the pay. That was a rumor. Maybe it was a rumor planted by your kind of people because the only kind of on-the-record statement by the Pentagon was we ain't going to cut the pay.

BEGALA: The pay is going to be cut unless the Congress reauthorizes it. The Pentagon and President Bush's Pentagon, that is, was telling the Congress not to reauthorize that pay. It runs out at the end of the fiscal year.

NOVAK: Do you know that next Tuesday is or at least wants to be another presidential holiday? August 19? Of course, stupid. It's Bill Clinton's birthday.

The celebration is the idea of Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe, who has presided over two and a half of the worst years ever experienced by the world's oldest political party, that's the Democrats. McAuliffe wants every person in America to send President Clinton a 57th birthday greeting by, guess what, sending $57 to the Democratic National Committee.

Get it? $57 for 57 years. Boy, don't those Democrats know how to have fun?

BEGALA: Well, they know how to raise money honestly in small amounts. Not secret back-room deals with Enron, which is what Dick Cheney and George Bush were doing. I think this is great. God bless President Clinton.

By the way, August 19 is also the birthday of Tipper Gore, our real first lady, who should be in the White House with her husband who won the election. And Happy birthday to Tipper, as well.

NOVAK: I hate to always correct you, Paul, because it embarrasses me. But, as a matter of fact, I think you'll find that the small contributions go to the Republicans and not the Democrats.

BEGALA: Well, speaking of the Republicans, the Republicans in Texas who have hijacked that state's legislature just don't understand the courageous Democrats are blocking their scheme to overturn the court approved congressional map and replace it with a partisan map stacked for the Republicans. Now, with the Democrats safe in New Mexico, Republicans in Austin are pitching a fit.

They're taking away the Democrats' parking spaces. They're canceling their cell phones and they're fining them -- get to this -- up to $60,000 a piece. State Senator Judith Zaffarini says she won't be intimidated by what she calls a poll tax. You see, unlike some Republicans, these Texas Democrats care more about principle than money or perks.

Now President Bush could stop all of this nonsense right now, but apparently he's putting partisan ahead of progress for Texas. Shame on him.

NOVAK: Let me introduce a few facts in there. Texas is a Republican state right now. All of the statewide office holders are Republicans. The state legislature is controlled by Republicans. They've carried the state for the President for Republicans for years.

But there's a majority of Democrats in the House delegation because it's gerrymandered, Paul. It's unfair. That's what the problem is.

BEGALA: Nonsense. That map was drawn by a bipartisan group of federal judges and approved even by thief Justice Rehnquist in a right wing Supreme Court. That's a fair map and that's the one they ought to use.

Well, in a minute, we will debate the political fallout from the big blackout. Former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson says we have a third world electricity grid. Well, guess which party voted against updating it two years ago? Stay with us and learn which one.


MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (R), NEW YORK CITY: I was actually sitting at a table and it was pretty bright and I did not notice that the lights went out. And somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said the lights went out. But it's a bright sunny day, as you know, here. And I think a lot of people had that experience, just, all of a sudden, a few things weren't working. And then you realized just how dependent we are on electricity.


NOVAK: Bush says the blackout across the Northeast and upper Midwest and parts of Canada is a wake-up call, and it's time to update the nation's electrical grid. The 50 million people who lost power yesterday certainly agree with the president, but whose responsibility is it? And who has to foot the bill?

Two members of New York's congressional delegation are in the CROSSFIRE and without air-conditioning. Democrat Anthony Weiner, Republican Vito Fossello.


BEGALA: Gentlemen, thank you for joining us. Good of you to do so.

Congressman Fossello, on June 6, 2001, House roll call vote Number 169, you voted against investing $350 million in loans to upgrade and update the power grid. Were you wrong to vote that way?

REP. VITO FOSSELLO (R), NEW YORK: No. First off, let me commend the people of New York and indeed all Americans who dealt with the power outage yesterday with good grace. And I've got to say, I couldn't be more proud of our fellow citizens. But the reality is...

BEGALA: But they would not have had to show that grace perhaps if you had voted to upgrade and update the power grid. Do you regret the vote against updating the power grid?

FOSSELLO: OK. Now can I answer? The reality is that we need to make improvements to our system. We need to provide incentives to the marketplace.

You know we're here on Wall Street, where people make -- where billions and trillions of dollars change hands every day. And if there ever was a wake-up call, it was yesterday to provide sufficient capacity, to address the citing requirements that have limited the ability of investors to provide the capacity, and also to ensure that there are reliability standards that are enforceable.

We can't just have people across the country to say no to everything. As demand grows 30 percent in the last 10 years and capacity grows by 10 percent, sooner or later something is going to happen. Indeed, yesterday was the wake-up call. So I think we need to stand together to ensure and provide incentives to the private sector and not just wave a wand and think that something is going to happen. Just as a car needs gas to go, our country needs power to run.

NOVAK: Congressman Weiner, the proposal that Paul was talking about was an amendment by Democratic Congressman Sam Farr of California. It's as phony as a $3 bill. As a matter of fact, it is only a loan.

The loan would only go into effect if the secretary of energy said so. It would take an emergency, and then you would only get the loan if money in the private sector was not available. It has so many caveats. Isn't it true that if you had passed that, it would have no effect on what happened yesterday?

REP. ANTHONY WEINER (D), NEW YORK: Well, we wouldn't have had to pass that if in the 106th Congress, when President Clinton proposed putting real stiff standards that all energy companies had to put in place, if that hadn't been killed by the Republicans, who kept saying, oh, deregulation, isn't it great? Yes, deregulation is great. Someone burns their toast in Ohio and we lose billions of dollars of revenue here in New York City, or there is a storm in Canada and we're all stuck in subway trains for hours on end.

We have to reach a point where -- energy deregulation has gotten us Enron, higher prices and now blackouts. I'm not so sure it's been such a great deal. And in a zeal for the Republicans to try to embarrass Gray Davis and Bill Clinton, we now have no standards in place, no loan guarantees in place, and blackouts all over New York City.

NOVAK: Surely you're not saying the electrical industry is deregulated. It's one of the most regulated industries in America.

WEINER: Well, since power deregulation, when we started worshipping at the altar of letting the private sector do these things, they haven't had a very good track record, now have they, Bob?

FOSSELLO: I would respectfully sort of disagree with my good friend Anthony Weiner. The reality is that there are millions of people across the country who rely upon investments by the private sector. And over the last 10, 15 years, as I mentioned before, we just haven't had the capacity to meet our demand. And now it's easy to say no to everything.

It's easy to say no to new power plants and generation. But I think the American people expect and deserve...


BEGALA: Congressman, excuse me for interjecting, but it's easy for to you say no, when the Democrats -- here is what the Democrats said to you and your colleagues two years ago when you were fighting over upgrading the power grade.

The Democrat report said this: "The obsolescence of the nation's electric power transmission grid has become an emergency that requires immediate attention. The problem is not one limited to just California or even the Western states. It is clearly a national problem that potentially effects all citizens."

Despite that warning, you, sir, said no. Why did you vote against updating the power system? FOSSELLO: Well, first of all, I think Bob Novak just answered that question pretty easily because it was a mandate approach to what is a significant problem. And, indeed, Paul, if you know history, and I think you do, you know that President Bush ran on creating an energy policy, one rooted in the free market to allow American citizens the right to have power when needed.

That's why the House earlier this year passed an energy bill with provisions that provide the incentives necessary, as well as the Senate. And that's why right now it's in reconciliation. And those who want to obstruct should step out of the way and let the American people get what they deserve. That's power on demand.

NOVAK: Mr. Weiner, just bringing up the president, let's listen to what the president said down in Texas the other day. Yesterday, was it? Yes.


BUSH: I view it as a wake-up call. I've been concerned that our infrastructure, the delivery system is old and antiquated. And I think this is an indication of the fact that we need to modernize the electricity grid.


NOVAK: That's what the president said today. Mr. Weiner, take off your partisan hat. Well, you don't have any hat on, but your imaginary partisan hat. And that was a sound thing the president said. You can't disagree with what he said, can you?

WEINER: Well, firstly, here the mayor didn't even notice the lights were out, and now the president just got a wake-up call. I'm glad the Republicans have woken up to the fact that the system is badly broken. Unfortunately, it took 20 million Americans to be in the dark, when President Bush is so kind to take up a five-minute speech and then go to a fund-raiser in California. In the next several days, reporters like you are going to look at who wrote checks at that fund-raiser, and I bet you they are all kinds of his buddies in the energy business which have stopped us from having the type of standards we need to prevent the type of blackout we had the other day.

BEGALA: Well, Mr. Fossello, isn't that a good point that Congressman Weiner makes, that the Bush energy plan that you just touted was actually designed in secret by Enron and other big energy companies and maybe that's why we're in the trouble we're in today?

FOSSELLO: You asked me if that was a good point, and I would say no. The reality is I, you know, I think at this point in time, less than about 24 hours after we had the largest power outage in the nation's history, let's take a step back and realize that it could have been a lot worse. And people deserve the credit and the pat on the back.

Now it's time for people in Washington and Congress and working with the White House in a nonpartisan ways. Americans want nonpartisan ways right now. They want people to step up to the plate and provide leadership, incentives to the industry to provide the capacity to citing requirements to strike the right balance, promoting conservation, protecting the environment, but providing it where necessary.

Just as I said earlier, cars need gasoline to run. So if the folks back home on Staten Island want to shut their lights on (ph) reliably, here in downtown in Manhattan or Ohio, or wherever it may be, they deserve it. And any of those who want to stand in the way should step aside.

BEGALA: Cars need gas to run; our channel needs ads to run. Keep your seat -- keep that spot right there in New York just a second. We'll come back to you in a minute, but first Wolf Blitzer will have all the news in the headlines on the latest to recover from the blackout.

And then we will have Rapidfire, where we turn up the wattage here on CROSSFIRE and try to get in as many questions and answers as we can.

Later, one of our viewers fires back at a suggestion for what President Bush should do about the blackout. Stay with us.



BEGALA: Time now for Rapidfire, the fastest question-and-answer session in television. We're talking about the big blackout with two members of New York's congressional delegation. They are Democrat Anthony Weiner and Republican Vito Fossello.

NOVAK: Mr. Weiner, doesn't it take a lot of gall for Bill Richardson to criticize the Bush administration when he didn't do anything about this problem as secretary of energy?

WEINER: Well, he sure tried and the Republicans stopped it for partisan reasons because they didn't want to get Gray Davis off the hook.

BEGALA: Congressman Fossello, has deregulation improved the reliability of our electrical system?

FOSSELLO: I think the more we place our hands in the private sector with adequate regulation, the better off the American people are. So, yes, it isn't foolproof. Clearly, yesterday was evidence of that. But it's better than spending billions and billions of taxpayer money for inadequate return on the American taxpayer, yes.

NOVAK: Mr. Weiner, will you go the whole hog and say that this was caused by the Bush tax cuts?

WEINER: By the Bush tax cuts? A lot was. No, this was caused by horrible energy policy and partisanship on the part of Republicans during the Clinton administration.

BEGALA: Mr. Fossello, would you reduce the tax cut for the top one percent of Americans in order to make our energy system safer from terrorist attacks and more reliable?

FOSSELLO: I happen to think the American people work too hard on (ph) the right incentives to reduce tax rates and promote economic growth. If anything, we should look to cut tax rates on you and others who make a lot of money, Paul, so that the American economy can grow and put more people to work.



NOVAK: Mr. Weiner, do you think we should break diplomatic relations with Canada over this?

WEINER: Well, I don't know. So far, they've given us hockey, which is pretty good, and maybe this power outage. I'm not sure it's a good trade.

BEGALA: Congressman Vito Fossello of New York, thank you both very much.

NOVAK: Thank you very much.

It's time for our Ask the Audience question. Take out your voting devices. Take them out and tell us, are you willing to pay more money to update the power grid?

Press one for, yes, I'm willing to pay extra. Just tell me how. Or press two for, no, we won't pay. We'll have the results after a break.

And some of our viewers have their theories about who caused the blackout. We'll let them fire back coming up.


BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Time now to get our response from the audience question. We asked our audience members right before the break, would you pay more to upgrade the power grid? And look at this.

Seventy-six percent of Democrats and even 40 percent of Republicans say yes. Now 60 percent of Republicans say no, but a pretty strong majority of the whole audience says, yes, they'd pay a little more to keep the lights on.

NOVAK: That's a little mixed verdict. Let's go with what the viewers want.

Emily Turner of Lansdale, Pennsylvania, says, "I say we blame the whole debacle on those Canadians. They're too backwards to understand what this electrical grid is all aboot eh?"

Emily, I think you've got it.


BEGALA All right. Clayton in Chicapee, Massachusetts, writes: "Paul, is it true President Bush is going to land a fighter jet on Broadway since major blackout operations are now at an end?" Well, that's...

NOVAK: Are you writing Clayton's stuff for him?

BEGALA: Yes. He said he would make Baghdad look like America. Now Broadway looks like Baghdad.

NOVAK: OK. Linda Burton of Rockland, Maine, says, "Bob, I have solved the East Coast power outage problem. The forces behind this situation are clearly related to Arnold Schwarzenegger's relationship with the Bush administration. It is just another of those Republican conspiracies. Just ask Arianna Huffington."

She's too busy not paying her taxes. I don't think we can do that.

BEGALA: But it is true that when the California energy crisis was going on, Arnold Schwarzenegger met in secret with Ken Lay, the head of Enron. Not who I would turn to for energy advice, but that's who Arnold does.

NOVAK: In somebody's basement, I'll bet. Yes.

BEGALA: Janie in Durham, North Carolina, writes: "We always get what we pay for. If we want better infrastructure in this country we're going to have to pay for it."

Common sense out of Durham, North Carolina.

NOVAK: Sounds like Democratic dogma. A question from the audience. Go ahead.

DAN FARBER: My name is Dan Farber (ph) from Sunny Isles (ph). My question is, if the New York brownouts were a wake-up call, then what were the California brownouts, a snooze button?

NOVAK: Well, let's get your facts straight. The California was a brownout. This, my friend, was a blackout. That is a different thing and a lot mere serious.

BEGALA: But, no, you're right. It's President Bush who hit that snooze button two years ago. Experts from the industry and Democrats kept saying we need to fix the power grid. President Bush said no. He should be held accountable for his negligence.

NOVAK: One more question. All right, all right. Another question.

BEGALA: Yes, ma'am?

CLAIRE: Hi, I'm Claire (ph) from Miami, Florida.

NOVAK: Put your mike up to your mouth.

CLAIRE: I'm Claire (ph) from Miami, Florida. And...

BEGALA: And eat your peas (ph).

CLAIRE: ... the California governor's race, if we have one, with all these different candidates, is this a good thing or a bad thing?

NOVAK: Well, I like all the candidates. I think Al Sharpton is the best of them. But I like all the Democratic candidates.

BEGALA: I think we should honor the voters and leave Gray Davis in office. But I just believe in elections. That's why I'm a Democrat.

From the left, I am Paul Begala. That's it for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.


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