Crude Campaigning

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

You could write the formula with mathematical precision. The higher the price of oil and the lower the number of days until the election, the shriller the rhetoric, the grander the promises and the dumber the policy.

Exhibit A, campaign 2008, is John McCain. Just a few months ago, McCain had an energy policy that, while hardly perfect, was in the ballpark of reasonable. He had broken with his party on climate change and understood the importance of weaning America from its carbon habit. He proposed a palette of solutions: nuclear power, clean coal, plug-in hybrids, biofuels. You could argue that McCain's plan overemphasized nuclear energy or spent too little on renewable energy, but it was hardly Bush-Cheney revisited.

Then came McCain's reversal on new offshore drilling. This wasn't, in itself, the problem. The moratorium on drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf has been in place for almost three decades. It is more a matter of theology than logic to believe that the combination of improved technology and increased prices does not justify reconsidering the environmental balance.

But with the unthinking zeal of the newly converted, McCain has morphed into a believer in the magical power of drilling. "We have to drill here and drill now," he has taken to crying on the campaign trail, as if he could get more sweet crude gushing by, say, November. On Monday, McCain, whose 2008 Senate attendance record is rather spotty, demanded that Congress "come back into town" to pass an energy bill. "Let's get this energy crisis solved," he proclaimed, as if a few weeks might make a difference.

Then there is the matter of misrepresentation. For all the focus on Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, the real problem with McCain's "celebrity" ad was that it falsely accused Obama of wanting to "raise taxes on electricity." As noted, the McCain campaign based this claim on a single interview in which Obama rejected the notion of taxing wind energy, saying that instead "what we ought to tax is dirty energy." This is, FactCheck concluded, "a feeble peg on which to hang" the claim that Obama wants to raise your electricity bill. In fact, the cap-and-trade program that both candidates support is, in effect, just such a tax.

Monday's cute campaign trick was to celebrate Barack Obama's 47th birthday by distributing tire pressure gauges labeled "Obama Energy Plan," mocking the Democrat's suggestion that drivers improve gas mileage by properly inflating their tires. This trivial-sounding move could save millions of barrels of oil annually. The Bush Energy Department urges drivers to do it.

This brings us to Exhibit B, which is, you may have guessed, Obama. He got the good-policy merit badge for resisting peer pressure (McCain plus Hillary Clinton) for a gas tax holiday. He would spend $150 billion over 10 years, far more than McCain would, to promote alternative sources of energy. So far, so good.

But the Obama campaign has taken a decided turn toward the less responsible in the past week. I'm not talking about his evolution on drilling. However poll-driven, this is eminently sensible: He's not itching for more but willing to consider it in certain areas as part of a broader, bipartisan compromise.

The same can't be said for his deja-vu-all-over-again proposal to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (see Al Gore 2000, John Kerry 2004), or for his $1,000-per-family "energy rebate," a whopping $65 billion cost to be paid for with a windfall-profits tax. Just a month ago, Obama was saying that there was no need to tap the reserve and that such a move should be saved for a "genuine emergency." Oil was more than $140 a barrel then. It's less than $120 a barrel now. What's changed, except for the better? Still, as gimmicks go, tapping the reserve is a more effective one than a gas tax holiday.

As for a windfall-profits tax, if you want to produce more energy, it hardly makes sense to give oil companies less incentive to make investments. Nor does it make sense to tax companies because market conditions boost their profits -- any more than homeowners and shareholders should be penalized for selling during a boom.

Obama, too, has descended to misleading. He accuses McCain of wanting to give $4 billion in tax breaks to oil companies -- without mentioning that this is no special oil-only deal, just part of McCain's proposal for an overall reduction in the corporate tax rate, something Obama has said he'd consider. Does that put him in the pocket of Big Oil, too?

And another question: If this is the state of the discussion in August, what will October bring?

© 2008 The Washington Post Company