By BRAD WARTHEN
EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR
JOHN McCAIN and Barack Obama are lucky there’s such a thing as Republicans and Democrats in this country, because neither would be able to get the Energy Party nomination.
They’re also lucky that the Energy Party exists only in my head, because I believe its nominee could tap into a longing, among the very independent voters Messrs. McCain and Obama need to court for victory, for a pragmatic, nonideological, comprehensive national energy policy. This independent voter longs for it, anyway.
What is the greatest failure of George W. Bush as president? If you answered “Iraq,” you lose. His greatest failure was summed up well by Sen. Joe Biden, who said at the 2006 Galivants Ferry Stump Meeting, “History will judge George Bush harshly not for the mistakes he has made… but because of the opportunities that he has squandered.”
The biggest wasted opportunity was when he failed, on Sept. 12, 2001, to ask Americans to sacrifice, to work together to shake off “the grip of foreign oil oligarchs,” and “plan the demise of Islamic fundamentalism.”
Gasoline was between about $1.40 and $1.50 a gallon then. If we had applied a federal tax increase then of $1 or $2 — as voices as varied as Tom Friedman, Charles Krauthammer, Jim Hoagland and Robert Samuelson have urged for years — we’d still have been paying less per gallon than we are now, and the money would have stayed in this country, in our hands, rather than in those of Mahmoud Ahmajinedad, or Hugo Chavez, or our “friends” the Saudis (you know, the ones who underwrite the Wahhabist madrassas).
And who, on the day after the terrorist attacks, would have refused? Most Americans would have been glad to be asked to do something to fight back.
We could have used that money for a lot of things, from funding the War on Terror (rather than passing the debt to our grandchildren) to accelerating the development of hydrogen, solar, wind, clean coal, methanol-from-coal, electric cars, mass transit — on something useful. We would have started conserving a lot more a lot faster, reducing demand enough to deliver a shock to world oil prices. Demand would have resumed its rise because of such irresistible forces as Chinese growth, but we would have had a salutary effect.
But we didn’t. We didn’t do anything to defund the terrorists or the petrodictators, or to reduce upward pressure on the national debt, or to respond to rising world energy demands, or to save the planet. We didn’t do it because we can’t do it individually and have an appreciable effect — it would take a national effort, and that takes leadership. And no one in a position of political leadership — not the president, not his fellow Republicans, and not their Democratic opposition — has stood up and said, Let’s get our act together, and here’s how….
Getting our act together would require leaders who are no longer interested in playing the Party Game. In Messrs. McCain and Obama, we had an opportunity. No major Republican is less into party than John McCain, which is why so many Republicans wanted to deny him the nomination. And in Barack Obama, Democrats have finally settled on the far-less-partisan alternative.
But in the energy realm, what have we gotten? Sen. Obama generally sticks to the liberal/Democratic playbook: No drilling offshore or in ANWR. Play down nuclear, play up solar and wind.
Sen. McCain, at least, is not doctrinaire Republican on energy. For that, you have to look to someone like Jim DeMint, whose op-ed piece on our pages a week ago extolled drilling, but excoriated “cap and trade.”
Sen. McCain will at least take some items from the left (cap and trade, CAFE standards) and some from the right (let states decide whether to drill offshore), but he’s mushy about it. And any credit he gets for ideological flexibility is overshadowed by his being the author of the biggest pander on energy this year — the proposal for a “gas tax holiday.”
An Energy Party nominee wouldn’t propose to lower the price of gasoline at the pump, so if that’s what you want — and a lot of you do want that — you can just stop reading now. Making it temporarily easier to buy more foreign oil is in no way in the national interest, and a leader would have the guts to explain that.
The Energy nominee would increase domestic production in the short term and lead a no-holds-barred national effort to take us beyond major dependence on anybody’s oil. He (or she) would put America at the forefront of both energy innovation and environmental stewardship, and would not let any sort of ideology stand in the way. (We must distinguish, for instance, between an environmental goal that matters, such as global climate change, and the inconvenience of a few caribou.) The Energy nominee would, given the chance:
- Drill off our coast, something we’ve seen can be done with minimal environmental risk.
- Drill in the ANWR (which, as detractors note, would not solve the problem, but it would help, and would demonstrate that we’re serious).
- Prohibitively tax the ownership of SUVs, and any other unconscionable, antisocial behavior.
- Lower speed limits, and enforce them (use the fines to pay for more traffic cops).
- Take money away from highway construction, and devote it to mass transit.
- Build nuclear plants with the urgency of the Manhattan Project.
- Develop electric cars at Apollo speed.
We need leadership that respects no one’s sacred ideological cows, left or right — leadership that will take risks to do what works, both for the nation and ultimately for the planet.
Is that really so much to ask?