Over the course of the last week, in response to a drastically altered political and policy landscape, both John McCain and Barack Obama change...

Over the course of the last week, in response to a drastically altered political and policy landscape, both John McCain and Barack Obama changed their minds.

In the face of gasoline costs that are rapidly heading toward $5 a gallon, McCain reversed his support for a moratorium on offshore oil drilling. And Obama, realizing that he could raise more money than any candidate in the history of presidential politics, retracted his pledge to abide by the spending limits required under the current system of public financing for campaigns.

As a longtime supporter of campaign finance reform, I am still coming to terms with the idea that Obama’s decision will probably mean the end of any constraints whatsoever on the amount of money spent on presidential campaigns in this country.

I regret that McCain has not devoted as much emphasis to political reform in this campaign as he did eight years ago, and I wonder if he had done so whether there would have been sufficient public and political pressure on Obama to make more of an effort to honor his commitment to the existing system. But I recognize that most voters will devote little time or attention to this matter, and so it makes more sense to devote the remainder of this post to the energy, economic and environmental policy debate that will decide this election.

The most immediate consequence of McCain’s decision is that he has sacrificed his chances to win California. Since a catastrophic spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., about 40 years ago, opposition to most drilling and exploration among the state’s residents has been overwhelming.

Before the emergence of global warming and greenhouse gas emissions as top-level policy concerns, coastal protection was the defining environmental issue here. A candidate could support paving the Mojave Desert and dynamiting the redwoods, but if he was against drilling, California voters would judge him as environmentally tolerable.

Although it has been 20 years since a Republican presidential candidate carried California in a general election, Obama’s support for granting drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants – the issue that helped Arnold Schwarzenegger win two elections for governor – was among the issues that made the state particularly tantalizing for McCain and his advisers. But the unpopularity of his positions on Iraq and abortion make the state unlikely to back him. And because state residents still support a drilling ban in such large numbers, McCain’s announcement essentially conceded the state to Obama.

But his shift was not a geopolitical forfeit; it was a trade. By giving up on what was an uphill fight at best on the Pacific, McCain may have strengthened his hand in states like Michigan and Ohio, where coastal protection is a less tangible concept than the economic hardships caused by rising gas prices.

Unlike Californians, national voters have adjusted their thinking on oil exploration. A Rasmussen poll released last week showed that two-thirds of Americans want to see the offshore ban rescinded.

Florida’s governor, Charlie Crist – a potential McCain running mate – shifted his position as well, suggesting that even environmentally conscious states like his were more open to exploration under the right circumstances.

Which leads to the second and more important ramification of McCain’s proposal.

Long after the dust has settled on the electoral map this November, the nation will still be grappling with the challenges of the current energy crisis.

For a quarter of a century since the prohibition on offshore drilling became law, there have never been more than sporadic and halfhearted efforts to repeal it. But gasoline was a little more than $1 per gallon when the ban was passed in the early 80s. Voters could afford the luxury of a shrinking domestic supply because foreign oil was cheap and plentiful. That’s no longer the case.

Certainly, a larger oil supply is only one aspect of the nations struggle for a sustainable energy policy. Both John McCain and Barack Obama support controls on greenhouse gas emissions and increased use of solar power, bio-fuels and other alternative energy sources.

Those who disagree with McCain’s drilling proposal tend to point out that his plan would not result in additional gasoline in the marketplace for several years. But even with additional tax incentives in place, most alternative energy sources would not be available for most American homes and businesses for quite some time either. (In both cases, the short-term impact on prices will be more the result of adjustments in commodities speculation than a dramatic increase in resource availability.)

So petroleum is going to remain a part of this discussion for many years to come, and while McCain’s new position may or may not help him win the presidency, it does signal the beginning of a new era in this country’s energy debate.

All participants in this discussion agree that the United States must reduce its dependency on oil from foreign sources. Absolutists on one side believe the answer lies in reduced use, conservation and emerging technologies. Extremists on the other argue that additional domestic drilling is the only logical response. McCain seems to be suggesting a compromise.

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June 23, 2008


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