On the Drilling Issue, the Democrats Are Still Losers

All spring and summer gas prices soared and the debate over energy policy played out on the front pages of newspapers across the country, with the Republicans unquestionably getting the better of it.

They deserve some credit for their strategic craftiness, but they wouldn’t have been nearly as successful in reducing so complicated an issue to the catchy slogan “Drill, baby, drill!” had it not been for the ample cooperation they received from tone-deaf and incoherent Democrats, who first failed to recognize the power of the G.O.P.’s message and then, upon realizing their error, disastrously overcompensated with a slogan of their own – one that they still can’t seem to believe never caught on.

And now, less than seven weeks before Election Day, and after inflicting so much political misery on themselves by refusing to either embrace or bluntly confront the G.O.P.’s drilling agenda, Democratic Congressional leaders and the party’s presidential nominee have finally settled on a drilling position that can best be described as “Republican-lite.”

Late on Monday night, the House passed a Democratic bill that would end the moratorium on drilling in 400 million acres off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The plan is somewhat different from what Republicans have been calling for in that it would keep much of the Outer Continental Shelf off-limits and would strip oil companies of some of their tax breaks. It also is highly unlikely to become law anytime soon, with a different version looming in the Senate and President Bush threatening a veto. Thus, House G.O.P. members railed against the plan as a politically transparent “sham” and “hoax” – an effort to take the issue off the table for the balance of the campaign with legislation that figures to die soon thereafter.

That may actually be a fair description of what the Democrats are up to. Over the summer, Barack Obama, bowing to the public’s sudden thirst for drilling, adjusted his rhetoric on the subject, indicating that he’d go along with it under some circumstances. And Democrats in the Senate crafted their own proposal, which would still have to be reconciled with the version just passed by the House before anything could be sent to Bush’s desk. With Congress leaving town soon for its campaign-season recess – and maybe not returning for the rest of the year – the clock on the Bush administration will probably expire before any drilling legislation is passed.

If that is their goal – to stall until the “drill now!’ fervor subsides or Obama is sworn in as president – then the legislation that Democrats pushed through the House makes sense. But if they believe they’ve somehow neutralized the G.O.P.’s political advantage on the issue, they are wrong. That ship sailed months ago.

The issue was lost for Democrats sometime around June, when Republicans decided to make off-shore drilling the centerpiece of their energy agenda. For decades, two separate prohibitions on off-shore drilling – one imposed by Congress, the other by every president since George H.W. – stood with little protest from the public, which felt little urgency for more oil production and was generally sympathetic to arguments about environmental protection. But with skyrocketing gas prices that showed no signs of abating, the G.O.P. recognized the emotional power of arguing for ramped-up drilling. Never mind that the oil reaped from off-shore drilling would be insignificant compared to global demand, and thus would do essentially nothing to lower prices; to the average voter, it only seemed logical to drill anywhere and everywhere in an effort to bring down fuel costs.

Faced with this posture, Democrats had two choices. The most politically expedient option would have been simply to cede the point to the G.O.P. and to go along with off-shore drilling – while also making clear that doing so would have no real impact on costs. Go ahead and drill, the Democrats could have said, but once we do that, can we please have a real conversation about the price of gas and energy dependency? This would have stripped the G.O.P. of a powerful political weapon – neither party would have owned the drilling question – and allowed the Democrats to retain their traditional advantage on energy issues.

Understandably, many Democrats had no interest in doing this, given their longstanding concerns for environmental safety (and their wariness of oil companies). Given that reality, they did have a second option: To turn the G.O.P.’s drilling push into a moral issue and to attack it – with all of the single-minded intensity that Republicans invested in their “Drill now!” P.R. campaign – as a scam that would have no impact on the cost of gas. In essence, they could have taken a page from Obama’s playbook earlier in the spring, when he turned Hillary Clinton’s opportunistic embrace of a superficially appealing gas-tax holiday into a political liability for her.

Some Democrats did take this posture, but the party wasn’t speaking with one voice. While the Republicans shouted about drilling, no equally clear and digestible message could be heard from Obama or his party’s Congressional leaders. By July, polls showed voters favoring off-shore drilling by a two-to-one margin – a sizable jump from just a few months earlier. The G.O.P.’s message had sunk in, and Republicans had solidified their standing as the party of drilling.

At that point, Democrats belatedly decided to get into the message game, with Congressional leaders offering their own drilling slogan: “Use it or lose it.” The idea: Oil companies already had 68 million acres of land leases that they weren’t tapping, so they should be forced to drill in these areas or risk losing their leases. This never caught on (even though Democrats were still repeating it this week, as they passed their House drilling bill), and for good reason.

The message was just as misleading as the G.O.P.’s – there are good reasons why the oil companies haven’t tapped those 68 million acres, like the fact that many of them are dry – but, worse, it also lacked the superficial logic that made “Drill now!” instinctively appealing to the masses. To believe the Democrats slogan, voters would have to accept that cash-hungry oil companies have been willfully ignoring billions of barrels of oil that they have the rights to. Not surprisingly, public support for off-shore drilling wasn’t even dented by the Democrats’ “Use it or lose it” campaign.

And now, after failing so miserably on the issue, Democrats have decided that it’s in their political interest to embrace the idea of off-shore drilling. They could have done this months ago and it might have helped them this fall. But now? Much too little, much too late.

On the Drilling Issue, the Democrats Are Still Losers