Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Democrats' Disastrous "Me, Too" Drilling Strategy

You've seen the cycle a million times before. Republicans see a political opportunity to pander. They take a position that, despite being the public policy equivalent of junk food, scores points with voters. Democrats, fearful of losing populist ground, say "me, too!"

It's a devastatingly corrosive strategy that fails on every single level. Contrary to removing the issue from play or co-opting it, voters faced with Tough Stance or Tough Stance Imitator will choose the genuine article. A Republican opponent will still hammer the Democratic candidate just as hard with a snide "I'm glad my opponent has come around to my position" (the great part about this attack -- doesn't matter if the Democrat came around to this position at age 6, you can still use it).

It gets worse. Any Democrat who doesn't pander on the issue is branded as an extremist liberal unwilling to hammer out a deal. And if legislation is passed, even if it's a down-the-middle compromise, guess who the media will give credit for championing it? (Hint: Not us.)

So why are Tim Kaine, Mark Warner, and Jim Webb all supporting Republican proposals to drill for fossil fuel off Virginia's shores?

It's hard to call Kaine and Warner's positions anything other than trying to have it both ways. Gov. Kaine claims he only supports natural gas exploration "to determine potential natural gas deposits." Mark Warner twists himself into knots, saying, "I favor the exploration piece, not the development piece." And then what? It's sort of a window-shopping approach to drilling.

Despite his longstanding support for more drilling, Sen. Webb does deserve credit for voting the right way on other energy issues, supporting proposals to extend renewable energy tax credits and crack down on speculators. Both bills were killed by GOP filibusters.

Fortunately, both Creigh Deeds and Brian Moran voted against an offshore drilling plan during this year's special session. While neither candidate has yet laid out detailed energy plans, it's promising that both did the right thing on drilling this year.

I know what you're thinking. "Miles, you treehugging dope," you say, "Republicans will use the drilling issue to hammer us in November!" I'm sure they'll try, but I'm not so sure they'll succeed. Neither is Matt Yglesias:

So here's a thought: For years and years before 2006, the savvy leadership of the Republican Party took the view that indulging the base's passion for Mexican-hating would be a political error. It was important, thought Bush, Rove, et. al, to position the GOP as a forward-thinking pro-immigration party. Then along came a moment of political desperation for congressional Republicans at which point they seized upon immigrant-bashing as a cure for their midterm blues. Democrats, conditioned by decades of defeat to instinctively believe that whatever crap the GOP is pulling at any given moment is political genius, had a moment of panic. But at the end of the day, it turned out that the Republican strategists were right the first time and there is no mass swing constituency for immigration restriction capable of delivering elections -- the crank racists were already Republicans, and this just helped push Hispanics into the Democratic column.

Flash forward to the Great Drilling Debate of 2008. Recall that it's unlikely that Bush and the GOP leadership weren't pushing this issue back in 2006 or 2004 out of their deep-rooted environmental convictions. Instead, the leadership didn't used to push offshore drilling because they thought offshore drilling was a bad issue -- the people who care either work for the oil companies (and are Republicans anyway) or else are drilling opponents worried that their communities and coastal economies will be wrecked by drilling. But facing another drubbing in November, congressional Republicans have talked themselves into believing that "drill drill drill" will deliver them a victory.

I'm sure you've heard plenty of polls reported in the media that Americans want more drilling. And it's true that if you ask, "Do you want more drilling in an effort to lower gas prices," Americans say yes. But that question reveals more about Americans' desire for lower gas prices than it does about their desire for drilling. And there's also the minor detail of the question's premise simply being false -- the Dept. of Energy says new drilling wouldn't lower gas prices for at least a decade, and only then by a few pennies.

Ask Americans whether they want clean energy solutions or more drilling and they'll choose clean energy every time. And why wouldn't they? Americans love more choices. Clean energy solutions would give us more energy diversity. Americans love saving money. Energy efficient technologies will cut our energy bills.

Democrats are not dealing from a position of weakness on energy. They're dealing from a position of strength. Voters don't want more drilling. They want leadership on real solutions. Let's give it to them.

Look, I'm not saying we should never compromise on the drilling issue. There's a case to be made that the Gang of Ten energy proposal in the Senate right now could be a net positive bill. But if our Democratic leaders won't take strong stands now, we'll be negotiating from a position of weakness when the Senate reconvenes in September.

Speaking of which, have you called your members of Congress to tell them to oppose more giveaways to Big Oil and support clean energy solutions? You can find contact information here.

Cross-posted from RK

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