WASHINGTON – The conventional wisdom in Washington, especially among Democrats, is that President Bush did not do John McCain any favors this week when the president jumped on the Arizona senator’s new offshore oil drilling bandwagon.
After all, Bush is a lame duck president with lousy poll numbers and almost no clout left on Capitol Hill. The last thing McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, needs is another issue – Can you say “War in Iraq”? – on which he and Bush appear in lockstep.
Here’s why the conventional wisdom might be wrong.
By putting the full weight of the White House behind the idea of opening up America’s coastal waters to oil exploration, and calling on Congressional Democrats to repeal a 27-year-old drilling ban, Bush has effectively tapped into rising anger over $4-a-gallon gas, and elevated the Washington debate over energy policy into an ever bigger issue in this year’s presidential election campaign.
It’s just the kind of pocketbook matter that resonates strongly with the working-class voters whose support the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, must win if he is going to beat McCain this fall. Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed in a Washington Post-ABC News Poll released this week said that the rising price of gasoline is creating a serious financial hardship in their households, and more than half said they are driving less as a result.
Democrats say more drilling is not the answer; they argue that the only responsible energy policy is to put more money into conservation and alternative technologies, like electric-powered cars. But if Bush can succeed in changing the national conversation around oil drilling, by persuading the public it is time to take a second look, then his announcement this week could put the onus on Obama to say what he is doing about high gas prices.
So even Republicans nervous about Bush’s effect on the McCain campaign say that, on this issue at least, the president might do the Arizona senator more good than harm.
“I think on this issue, showing action on gas prices overrides any kind of problems that McCain has being too closely aligned with Bush,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist who has previously said that Bush’s main job in the election is to raise money for McCain and otherwise stay out of the way. “This issue is so hot right now that showing action is more important than political posturing vis-a-vis Bush.”
Bush has long favored drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, but has not previously spoken out in favor of coastal drilling, which is why his declaration Wednesday in the White House Rose Garden made big news.
McCain – who is opposed to drilling in the Arctic, and has broken with the president on environmental issues like climate change – spoke out two days earlier, on Monday afternoon. He followed up with a speech in Houston on Tuesday.
That same day, that another prominent Republican opponent of offshore drilling, Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, said he, too, had changed his mind.
The timing was significant. By allowing McCain to go first, the White House deprived Democrats of the ability to say the Arizona senator is following Bush’s lead. The White House was well aware that McCain was planning to spend a week talking about energy, though Scott Stanzel, the deputy press secretary, insists there was no coordination on policy between the two camps.
“Energy and gas prices are front and center issues for all Americans,” Stanzel said. Voters, he said, “shouldn’t be shocked that leaders in Washington are looking at this issue and coming to the same conclusion.”
Some Republicans close to McCain privately expressed concerns that Bush is complicating life for their candidate, by playing into the Democrats’ characterizations of the senator as a Bush clone. One said the Rose Garden announcement “makes John look like McCain-Bush rather than standing up and being his own guy,” while another called it “a mixed blessing.”
It will now be up to McCain and Bush to convince Americans that their conclusion on drilling is correct. Democrats say it’s a tough case to make. Geoff Garin, a Democratic strategist and top adviser to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, said surveys show Americans have a strong suspicion about the motives of oil companies, which is one reason Congress has consistently refused to open the Arctic for drilling.
“People get that if you start drilling in the Arctic tomorrow, it won’t affect the supply of oil for a decade and won’t affect the price of gasoline by more than a couple of pennies,” Garin said. He said Democrats will use the fall campaign to offer “a competing narrative,” built upon the “very profound feeling that Americans have that oil companies are ripping them off and that Bush and the Republicans are aiding and abetting them.”
That may be especially true for Bush, because of his roots in the Texas oil industry. Yet strong backers of coastal drilling were hardly thrilled by his appearance in the Rose Garden on Wednesday; they accuse the president of not going far enough.
These drilling proponents, including the Institute for Energy Research, a nonprofit organization with ties to the energy industry, are pushing Bush to repeal a 1990 executive order, signed by his father, prohibiting oil exploration in any areas covered by the Congressional moratorium. Bush has the authority to repeal the order immediately, but wants Congress to go first.
“The president has chosen to speak softly when American consumers need him to wield a big stick,” said the institute’s president, Thomas Pyle, calling Bush’s action “a missed opportunity.”
Within hours of Bush’s announcement, Rep. Sue Myrick, a North Carolina Republican who is backing legislation to repeal the Congressional moratorium, issued a press statement headlined “Rep. Myrick Questions President’s Leadership on Oil Drilling” – an affront that would have been unthinkable in the earlier days of Bush’s presidency, when Republicans controlled Congress and Bush routinely got his way on Capitol Hill.
“He wants Congress to take action,” Myrick said, “yet he won’t lead the way.”