It’s increasingly obvious that desperate Republicans are well on the way to convincing themselves that offshore oil drilling is some sort of heaven-sent electoral silver bullet. Check out this statement at RealClearPolitics by supply-side economic warhorse Lawrence Kudlow:
As Sen. John McCain and the GOP leadership nationalize the drill, drill, drill message, the Republican party might conceivably be riding a summer political rally. The question of offshore drilling, along with expanded domestic energy production, has suddenly become the biggest political and economic wedge issue of this election. Is there a Republican tsunami in the making?
You might dismiss this as a disposable comment from the peanut gallery, if it were not for the fact that conservative House Republicans are currently threatening to shut down the federal government (a tactic that didn’t work out too well for the GOP back in 1995) if Congress’ Democratic management doesn’t instantly facilitate a vote to lift the long-standing offshore drilling ban.
This conservatives’ excitement over the alleged power of the offshore drilling issue emanates from two public opinion data points that they assume are connected: polls showing significant majorities of the public favoring more offshore drilling, and John McCain’s rise to parity with Barack Obama in some national polls.
On the second point, there’s no concrete evidence I’ve seen indicating that McCain’s recent slow drift upward in tracking polls is primarily or even significantly attributable to the Drill Now! Drill Here! message.
And on the first point, polls have long shown that given a straight-up yes-or-no choice, Americans favor just about anything that will increase energy stocks, though promoting alternative energy sources typically rank first. A CNN poll last week showing big majorities for offshore drilling is often touted by Republicans as documenting the power of this issue. But that poll actually showed (as pointed out by TNR’s Eve Fairbanks) slight drops in support for offshore drilling during the course of the current GOP campaign. And getting to the substratum of the issue, the poll also indicated the public is split down the middle on the proposition that offshore drilling could have an immediate effect on gas prices.
The longstanding support of most Americans for a comprehensive energy strategy that includes all options helps explain why Barack Obama is making it clear he’s not an absolutist on domestic oil and gas exploration. But unlike some progressives, I don’t necessarily view that as a flip-flop or “surrender.” It’s long been a basic talking point among pro-environment Democrats that expanded domestic production of fossil fuels, where consistent with environmental needs, should be a part, albeit a small part, of any overall energy strategy.
The key point about the positioning of the two presidential candidates and the two parties on this issue is that Obama and Democrats consistently favor a balanced, alternatives-and-conservation-heavy approach, while McCain and Republicans are now going out of their way to signal that domestic oil and gas drilling are their overriding priorities. And that exposes them to a potentially lethal counter-attack.
The same CNN poll that conservatives are crowing about shows that 94% of Americans think that U.S. oil companies are a major (68%) or minor (26%) cause of rising gas prices. The Bush Administration is viewed as a major (54%) or minor (35%) cause of the problem by 89% of Americans. (“Democrats in Congress” are viewed as a major cause by 31%, and a minor cause by 45%).
It is very important that the Obama campaign and Democrats generally make the following points:
(1) McCain’s sudden championship of virtually unlimited offshore drilling represents a recent (June 2008) flip-flop conducted in close conjunction with an identical flip-flop by George W. Bush.
(2) This flip-flop was towards the maximum position of U.S. oil companies, now enjoying record profits, who immediately showered some of those profits into the campaign accounts of John McCain.
(3) There’s zero evidence that reversing bans on oil drilling offshore or in national wildlife reserves will have any immediate effect on gas prices, and 100% evidence that a oil-o-centric energy policy will perpetuate dependence on foreign-controlled oil markets and U.S. oil companies.
(4) McCain, Bush and the GOP continue to pursue not only bad and oil-company-driven energy policies, but bad and special-interest-driven policies on health care, housing, globalization, pensions, economic insecurity, public and private debt, and income inequality. And that’s just the domestic side of the ledger.
If Democrats relentlessly pursue this message, then it’s all to the good that Republicans have deluded themselves into thinking that oil drilling is the only domestic talking point they need. Let them continue to back themselves into this corner. Let the Kudlows of the world continue to make their Rube Goldberg arguments that oil market speculators (yet another target of public ire) will reward pro-drilling, pro-oil-company-profits policies with lower oil prices. Let conservatives continue to argue that perpetual semi-occupation of Iraq is necessary to protect the access of multinational oil companies to that country’s production. Let the GOP make itself the symbol of Congress’ futility by threatening to shut down the entire federal government until oil drilling is extended into sensitive areas affecting actual voters in specific parts of the country.
Give ’em enough rope, and Republicans will soon regret making Drill! Drill! Drill! their primary economic talking point in 2008.