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Drilling Down

How Democrats got bulldozed on energy.

Representative John Shadegg was very proud of his Republican colleagues in the House. They had, after all, wrestled down rising gas prices. "The market is responding to the fact that we are here talking," he told reporters. And, even if he wasn't right about the technical workings of the petroleum market--which, strangely enough, responded to a decrease in consumer demand and not the posturing of conservative congressmen--he had a point: By showing up and making their case for drilling for oil, Republicans were indeed moving the needle.

From the opinion polls, you could see how the GOP has persuaded the public of the wisdom of its fetish for populating the U.S. coastline with oil rigs. According to a CNN/Opinion Research Survey, nearly three-quarters of Americans like the idea of offshore drilling. And, most dishearteningly, the public apparently believes the least plausible piece of Republican spin--that such drilling, even if it won't yield oil for many years, will lower prices in the near term. Then there is the Republican domination of the energy debate in the presidential contest. Under pressure from McCain, Barack Obama felt obliged to temper his long-standing opposition to drilling. On one of his stronger issues, Obama was suddenly on the defensive.

That Republicans have, against the odds, won the first round of this debate is a remarkable feat. This initial triumph owes as much to Democratic ineptitude as it does to GOP savvy. It speaks to the fact that Democrats have been unable to rhetorically defend their environmental policy as sound energy policy. If Democrats can't figure out how to make their case for alternative energy and conservation, they will have squandered an historic opportunity--and find themselves buried in a deep political hole.

To recount how things went so badly: The Democrats' initial instinct was to revert to populism. They began wailing about the rapacity of "speculators." "Without regard for anything but their own profits, we've seen that--it seems the traders are the ones bidding up the prices," Senator Harry Reid crowed last month. "They keep buying futures to inflate the price, and they keep making more and more money." There was, however, a problem with this case: It simply wasn't true. Speculators weren't responsible for rising prices at the pump. And, beyond that, the public simply didn't believe this diagnosis. So the Democrats made their first adjustment. They began to broaden their populist diatribe and started attacking the likes of Exxon and the rest of the big oil companies. But, by that point, they were already losing the argument.

Faced with grim polling numbers, Democrats made their second adjustment. They began to compromise with the drilling plans that they had just attacked. After Obama shifted his stance on drilling, Nancy Pelosi encouraged vulnerable Democratic congressmen up for reelection to do the same, according to House aides. This may help salve their political woes in the short-term, but it is a position that will vitiate their arguments over the long haul. To ultimately prevail politically, not to mention drive down energy costs and forestall climate change, Democrats will have to argue that the only true path to "energy independence" is independence from oil itself. That is, however much we may rely on our own oil sources, the market for oil is global, not national, and the growing thirst for oil from places like China and India won't be diminishing any time soon. So drilling may provide a few more U.S. barrels of oil, but this increase in supply will be minuscule compared to the cresting demand. Instead of generating a true solution to the coming crisis, the Republican energy plan further shackles Americans to the whims of the global oil market.

The inability of Democrats to make this critique against drilling is troubling. Yes, Obama mentioned the importance of tire pressure gauges. And he even did a terrific job fending off McCain's attempt to portray these gauges as the heirs to Jimmy Carter's cardigan. "It's like these guys take pride in being ignorant," Obama told Ohio voters in a town hall meeting. (Indeed, he could have gone further and pointed out that no less a red-blooded organization than nascar has urged drivers to properly inflate their tires.)

But tire gauges are a very small part of the case that Democrats need to make. They need to argue that energy efficiency is the cheapest, most effective avenue for lowering energy prices in a hurry. That it's a means of salvaging our current lifestyle, not remaking it. In other words, Democrats need to better argue that environmentalism is the solution to high energy costs.

There's more at stake in these arguments than presidential polls. If Democrats continue to cede ground on issues like drilling, they will have lost the larger debate over our society's long-term dependence on petroleum.


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By The Editors