The House of Representatives today passed a bill allowing for off-shore drilling in the US coasts.
The Democrats have been strongly against the measure, but now they decided to cave in and allow for drilling to take place between 50 miles (80 km) and 100 miles (160 km) off the coast.
For years the issue has been an even-splitter, with as much support for extended drilling as for conservation efforts.
But the recent surge in oil prices – which saw gas jump to over $4 a gallon in the US – caused a shift in public opinion. A recent Gallup poll found 57% of Americans now supporting offshore drilling, with 41% still against it.
Looking to ride the wave of public feeling on the matter, the McCain campaign has made the issue a constant talking point, with McCain being a very vocal supporter of offshore drilling.
That wasn’t always the case. In fact, until May this year, John McCain was against offshore drilling. But then he decided to ditch the maverick approach and get with the conservative program.
Now it’s time for the Democrats to also switch tracks on the matter. Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker and a Florida Representative, was staunchly against offshore drilling, pledging that she would not budge because she was “trying to save the planet”.
Well, now she just did. She may not have had a choice, at least since Obama opened the way to the turn-around when he recently signaled that he would look favorably on a compromise on the issue.
It’s true that Senator Obama wrapped his change of position – from “no, never” to “well, just a little” – in very sensible words about compromise and moving forward on the subject of Energy Security.
I’s also true that the measure that today passed the House is a very watered-down version of the bill the Republicans wanted.
Instead of the 3-mile limit they were after, a 50-mile limit will be imposed, which is no small difference: according to estimates, 90% of the oil lying off the US coasts is within this 50-mile limit, and would as such be off-limits to oil exploration.
Some may see it as a smart move from the Democratic camp: defuse an explosive subject that was working well for McCain, while ceding little ground on the matter.
Actually, what the Democrats did was add vinegar to the wound.
Even a Republican-style full opening of off-shore drilling would have little impact US energy independence, and none in short-term fuel prices.
In fact, the Energy Information Administration, in its Annual Energy Outlook 2007, clearly stated that “the projections in the OCS access case indicate that access to the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030.”
The Democratic-endorsed bill will have, for all the fanfare surrounding it, an even more risible effect.
However, in the political world the fanfare is, as they say, “of the essence”, and it’s in this respect that the Democrats have made a blunder.
With this bill, they opened themselves to two kinds or Republican attacks:
First, that they are trying to deceive the public – already the McCain camp is portraying this as a mere token effort to address the issue without actually moving forward – which has some measure of truth in it.
Second, and most damaging, it exposes the Obama campaign to charges of flip-flopping.
True, McCain also changed his tune. However, it’s not as bad for McCain to flip-flop on this matter, since he is actually falling in line with the expected conservative position of “drill, baby, drill”.
Obama doesn’t have the same get-out-of-jail card, since he will be perceived as abandoning the long-standing Democratic position on the matter and as bending with the wind on a crucial matter.
As recently as June this year, Obama was pledging that, if elected President, he would continue to uphold the moratorium on offshore drilling. He noted that this stance “may not poll well”, and accused his rival of changing his position to appease the public sentiment.
Obama concluded that his job was not to “go with the polls”, but to “tell the American people the truth about what’s going to work when it comes to our long-term energy future”.
He should have stuck with that position and prized consistency over this kind of expedients.
The Democrats understood that being perceived as not doing anything to lower gas prices was a risk they couldn’t afford. Well, they’re wrong. Being perceived as inconsistent is the risk they can’t afford.
Whereas McCain is reenforcing the consistency of the Republican message with his flip-flopping, Obama is weakening his, and muddling the Democratic positioning in the voters’ mind.
At a time when the two candidates are shoulder to shoulder on the polls, that is something that he should not want to do.
With the specter of John Kerry hanging over the matter, we have to ask ourselves: could this bill cost Obama the Presidency?