As the shock waves from $4 per gallon gasoline impact every segment of U.S. society the decades-old taboo against even discussing new offshore oil drilling has been decisively shattered. This wholly unexpected development now offers an extraordinary political opportunity to John McCain and the Republican Party, but only if they have the courage to boldly seize it. The 1981 federal ban on new offshore drilling was a remarkable victory for the radical environmentalists who have long been a dominant element in the Democratic Party. However this Petroleum Prohibition era has only been sustained because the Republican party meekly went along with it even during the years they controlled both the Congress and the White House.
Now mounting public anger and frustration and the resultant rapid shift in opinion polls have suddenly transformed the political dynamics of energy policy.
In the space of one week both President Bush and Senator McCain announced support for offshore drilling- sort of. Previously Bush had ignored this option and McCain had flat out opposed it. While they now favor a reversal of the 1981 ban, they’ve tried to straddle the issue by saying that ultimately individual states should decide on drilling.
This tepid Republican support for new drilling is welcomed by Democrats who genuinely fear the political consequences of the Republicans making this issue a high priority and sticking with it right through to November.
As opposition to drilling is a hot button liberal issue Obama had to oppose lifting the federal ban. Disingenuously he claimed that new drilling wouldn’t lower gas prices and insisted that a “windfall profits” tax was the best option. He’s betting that a continued demonization of “Big Oil” will prevent the people from seeing that failed government leadership is the real villain of the piece.
The companion strategy to new drilling is a dramatic build-up of U.S. nuclear capacity beginning with a demolition of the absurd approval process for new nuclear plants. Democrats are badly split on this issue. Those who obsess on global warming and the carbon emissions, they see as the cause are newly responsive to nuclear as a “clean” alternative. Obama’s history is pure anti-nuclear but in an effort to bridge this Democratic divide he has lamely promised that as President he would commission a “study” of the subject.
Greatly damaging to Democrats has been the torrent of discussion and new information on energy issues. The public is learning things that had been de facto “unmentionable”: the vast size of untapped U.S. oil reserves both land and sea, the superb safety record of new drilling technology, the stunning success of France with nuclear power, and the pathetic track record of so-called “alternative” sources of energy.
Democratic Congressional efforts to push a “windfall profits” tax or demonize “speculators” have collapsed even at their own hearings where the GAO and the Congressional Budget Office poked large holes in both ideas. At last Congress seems to be catching up to the public in understanding that the real problem is one of supply falling way behind demand.
Democratic disunity and growing public awareness and frustration on energy give Republicans a golden opportunity to seize control of the debate on domestic policy. Energy is clearly the hinge on which the future of the U.S. economy is now swinging. It also couples naturally to national security which is McCain’s great strength.
The only thing that seems to be preventing McCain from embracing and fully exploiting this emerging new political dynamic is a stubborn adherence to long held views (e.g. ANWR) and fear of being called a flip-flopper.
Douglas Mac Arthur famously said that the very best campaign plan is outdated following the first day of battle. Great leaders improvise and adapt as conditions on the ground change.
McCain and every other Republican candidate should ride this issue not briefly or half-heartedly but aggressively and continuously. The power of this issue can super-charge McCain’s chances of victory and dramatically improve Republican chances at every level.
Even more importantly this single issue represents a once in a generation opportunity to utterly transform the future prospects of America’s economy and its national security.
In throwing off the self-imposed shackles of the past and liberating the immense latent power of the U.S. economy we shall again validate the prophecy of Ronald Reagan that “It will always be Morning in America”.