When the curtain goes up tonight on the most highly anticipated vice-presidential debate in American political history, Alaska governor Sarah Palin will have a golden opportunity to regain the momentum for the McCain campaign. To do that, she must focus on the issue that resuscitated the GOP presidential effort earlier this summer, and that indirectly led to John McCain picking her as his running mate: energy.
As Larry Kudlow pointed out last month, 2008 is the energy election. The past two weeks have seen the imbroglio in the financial markets emerge as a legitimate crisis as well as a potent campaign issue. Still, since the beginning of summer, most Americans have viewed this election through the prism of high gasoline prices and the national debate over offshore drilling. It was this focus on energy, as well as the stark differences between Democrats and Republicans on energy exploration and production, which explain why the weak, hoary candidacy of John McCain whittled down the seemingly insurmountable lead once held by Barack Obama. The candidates present starkly different positions when it comes to energy, and Gov. Palin would be well served in her debate with Democratic senator Joseph Biden to highlight those contrasts.
Take offshore drilling. Nancy Pelosi's Democrats were unable to keep the congressional ban on offshore drilling from expiring yesterday. That would seem to be a victory for John McCain (as well as for common sense), who called for the end of the moratorium many months ago. Throughout the year, polls have shown large majorities of the American people favoring offshore energy exploration.
Palin needs to highlight the fact that the ban's expiration is not the end of the matter, but only the beginning. Whoever wins the White House will have a large role in writing the rules governing future offshore drilling. Obama's vacillation on the issue (he voiced measly support for the Gang of Ten compromise at one point this summer) has hardly been encouraging. An Obama administration could jettison offshore drilling by writing rules that make it too difficult for companies to recoup their investments, or that too easily allow environmental groups to tie up drilling leases in the courts.
McCain picked Palin as his running mate in part because of her experience as chief executive of a state that is no stranger to energy production. Both as governor and as a member of Alaska's Oil and Gas Commission, Palin has waded deep in the economic and the environmental waters of the nation's energy debate. Americans understand that we need to bring supplies to the market, and that anti-energy policies will only serve to drive up prices. Palin needs to let people know that she has been firmly on the side of producing the energy resources we have within our own borders.
If the differences between the two campaigns on energy were confined to the question of drilling, it would amount to a distinct advantage for the GOP ticket. But as they say on late-night infomercials: Wait, there's more! Palin can take a Ginsu Knife to the Obama-Biden energy platform by highlighting Democrats' inflexible opposition to coal. In a rope-line gaffe last week, Joe Biden was caught on camera denouncing "clean coal." That refers to technology under development that would capture and sequester greenhouse gases. No matter that the Obama campaign's boilerplate issue papers support clean coal. Biden announced, emphatically, "No coal plants here in America."
Palin could throw a few crucial statistics at Biden tonight. One is that coal provides fully half the electricity Americans consume. Nuclear power and natural gasneither of which is beloved by environmentalistsprovide about 20 percent each. Large hydropower plants like the Hoover and Grand Coulee Dams (also hated by Greens) provide 7 percent. That's 97 percentvirtually all of America's electric power. How about wind and solar, the renewables that Biden favors? Combined, they provide less than one half of one percent of America's electricity. Does Biden really believe that we can meet our future energy and economic needs without fossil fuels?
Palin can bring up nuclear power to highlight another key difference. Both McCain and Obama claim to support nuclear power. But catering to environmental interests (not to mention Nevada voters), Obama vows he will shut down the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository near Las Vegas if elected. McCain supports opening Yucca as a critical part of expanding nuclear power's role in our energy mix.
Curiously, Obama doesn't suggest any alternative to Yucca Mountain, and without an answer to the nuclear-waste problem, the country's nuclear renaissance may stall. So Obama can say he's for nuclear power, which is what the American people want to hear, while still signaling to greens that nuclear will go nowhere on his watch. John Kerry got in trouble four years ago by claiming he was for the war in Iraq before he was against it. When it comes to nuclear power, the Obama campaign is trying to be for it and against it at the same time.
There is nothing like $150-per-barrel oil and $4.50-per-gallon gasoline to focus consumers' minds on the subject of energy, and one of the few benefits of this year's high prices was how they made us take stock of our nation's energy situation. The mess on Wall Street may have garnered most of the headlines over the past two weeks. But Americans have been having a conversation about energy for the better part of the year. Gov. Palin could go a long way toward shoring up support for the GOP ticket in tonight’s debate if she highlights that conversation, and reminds voters just whose policies aim to increase supplies and reduce prices.
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