The Democrats are supposed to own the issue of energy, if only because they’ve mastered the art of tarring Republicans as the party of Big Oil. It’s a caricature that the G.O.P., with its mocking scorn for conservation, addiction to corporate tax cuts and unkickable habit of nominating oil men for national office, has done nothing to refute.
Of course, the Democrats are also (supposedly) the masters of the blown political save, experts at devising new and ever more elaborate means of snatching electoral defeat from the jaws of victory. So it’s only fitting that now, just as energy assumes unprecedented prominence in a presidential campaign, they’ve gone and adopted a maddeningly incomprehensible message that threatens to forfeit the powerful emotional advantage they’ve enjoyed on the subject for decades.
The problem starts with the party’s Congressional leadership, which first allowed their Republican counterparts to set the terms of the debate — Drill! Drill! Drill! — and then compounded this error by (a) dawdling in offering a plan of their own, and (b) finally settling on a plan that is transparently disingenuous and that — amazingly — actually reinforces the Republicans’ message.
Making matters worse, the party’s presidential nominee, who showed admirable courage on the issue of a gas tax holiday back in the primary season (for which he was rewarded by the voters), has opted mostly to defer to his Congressional colleagues this summer, parroting their counterproductive rhetoric and allowing John McCain to gain an edge on the issue that wouldn’t have been imaginable a few months ago.
It should be stipulated the G.O.P.’s "Drill now!" mantra is, from a policy standpoint, every bit the same red herring as the gas tax holiday. It will be years before even a drop of oil is reaped from offshore drilling, and even that won’t really matter in the context of a global market in which demand is nearing 100 million barrels per day. Sure, offshore drilling won’t hurt gas prices — in the same way that returning an empty Coke can for the nickel deposit won’t hurt your effort to save up for a house. The decision on whether to allow offshore drilling is utterly inconsequential to the matter of lowering gas prices.
But policy details do not drive mass opinion. Most voters are too busy figuring out how to finance their next fill-up to concern themselves with the finer points of the global oil market. All they know is that gas is too damn expensive and that somebody had better do something about it. To their strategic credit, Republicans clearly grasp this reality, just as they understand the value of concise, superficially logical arguments repeated ad nauseam. Hence their relentless calls for offshore drilling. Voters may not buy it as a cure-all, but it sounds to most of them like an obvious step in the right direction. The G.O.P.’s message, clearly, has been sinking in.
Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, showed none of this clarity and intensity. Realistically, they had two politically intelligent courses from which to choose.
They could have taken a page from Obama’s primary playbook, when he stood by his opposition to Hillary Clinton’s superficially alluring cries for a gas tax holiday. Obama’s response was clear and unwavering: The holiday was a worthless sham cooked up by pollsters and consultants and condemned by every reputable economist. Eventually, the public came around. Congressional Democrats could have opted to attack offshore drilling in the same way, bashing it — over and over again, with G.O.P.-like ferocity — as useless and fraudulent, until the message sank in.
Alternately, they could have simply taken the issue off the table by saying, in effect, "You want drilling? Go ahead. It won’t do anything." With this approach, the Democrats would have been spared a politically taxing fight with the G.O.P. on what is mostly a symbolic matter. And with drilling off the table, the debate could then have moved to territory more suited to the Democrats. (To appease environmentalists within their ranks, they also could have made their support contingent on the approval of individual states, something that most coastal states won’t do anyway.)
Instead, Congressional Democrats charted a third course. Sensing that public opinion was with the Republicans, and worried that their more conservative members were ready to sign on with the pro-drilling crowd, House and Senate leaders devised the bafflingly asinine "use it or lose it" message, arguing that oil companies are right now sitting on leases to 68 million acres of untapped land. They should be required to drill there before we even talk about offshore drilling, the Democrats cleared.
Not at all surprisingly, this message has utterly failed to resonate. Again, voters don’t understand the finer points of how oil companies are run, but the Democrats’ argument — unlike the G.O.P.’s "Drill now!" slogan — feels superficially false. Told that there are 68 million acres of untapped land, most voters assume there’s a reason for this besides the conspiratorial explanation the Democrats are encouraging. (And they are right in assuming this: Much of that 68 million acres is either dry or too difficult (and thus not cost-effective) to drill. There’s a reason why oil companies are drilling on 23 million other acres of federal land.) Listening to this gibberish will not prompt many voters to rethink their knee-jerk support for the G.O.P.’s much simpler and more logical message.
In fact, "use-it-or-lose-it" actually reinforces the G.O.P.’s message, since it encourages voters to view gas prices as an issue of supply, and not demand. If the Democrats are advocating drilling on 68 million acres of land as a helpful step to curb gas prices, aren’t they essentially admitting that offshore drilling would also be helpful? "Use-it-or-lose-it" strips Democrats of any moral high ground they would otherwise have in attacking "Drill now!" In the end, the Republicans are the only ones most people can understand.
Obama has fallen into the same trap as his party’s Capitol Hill leadership. He failed to mount a meaningful effort to turn the public against offshore drilling, a contrast to the bravery he showed in fighting the tax holiday. And he’s taken to spouting the same use-it-or-lose-it-line, just as he’s embraced the D.C. Democrats’ calls to free up the Strategic Petroleum Reserve — another empty gesture that reinforces the public’s assumption that there is a supply-end solution to gas prices. Worst of all, he’s even dusted off the party’s old soak-the-rich platitudes, calling for a windfall profits tax on energy companies — another move that would do nothing to lower prices (although it probably would discourage further exploration and development by the oil companies).
In the end, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid probably won’t pay a price for this stupidity. Their House and Senate candidates still have enormous built-in advantages, and Democrats will almost certainly increase their numbers in both chambers significantly. But the presidential race is a different story. Obama is playing the Big Oil card that has worked so well in the past for his party, but it’s McCain who’s on the offensive on energy and gas prices.