The numbnuts who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 used to say there was no difference between Al Gore and George Bush. Then came 9/11, and they could delude themselves no more.
Within a couple of years, President Bush had squandered his opportunity to free the nation of its oil addiction. Instead, he spent hundreds of billions of dollars, and wasted even more in political capital, getting us mired in an unnecessary war over Iraq.
It was the perfect contrast. President Gore wouldn’t have done that. He would have finished the job in Afghanistan. Then, he would have used the focus that Middle Eastern terrorism placed on our oil dependency to put the country on the path toward clean energy.
At least that’s what I used to say—or howl—to Nader apologists, in hopes that they finally would admit that they’d suffered in 2000 from the young century’s most consequential brain fart.
What would Al do now, though? What would Al do were he president during the nation’s largest oil spill? Or, more to the point, why isn’t President Obama doing it?
Much ink and many electrons have been wasted on BP’s spill being “Obama’s Katrina.” It isn’t. There are a few easy parallels, but they aren’t really meaningful.
The spill is more like Obama’s 9/11, at least in this sense: It’s a wake-up call to change our nation’s energy policy. Even if you ignored the scientific consensus on climate change, there have been other wake-up calls—the Massey coal mine disaster, the petroleum price spikes of 2008, Hugo Chavez’s U.S.-baiting, Iran’s ascendancy, and so on.
But none of those offered the same opportunity to shift the nation’s politics when it came to energy policy. The BP spill does. It gives leaders of goodwill a chance to reframe the discussion about not just oil, but—on the heels of the Massey tragedy—about a carbon-based society that is hurtling toward disaster.
Isn’t this the time ... in the heat of a campaign in which the president’s cohorts must prove they’re reformers ... to take up the call for an energy revolution ... to merge populist rage with progressive environmentalism?
There are “pragmatists” on the president’s side who’d argue otherwise. They’re more comfortable with “triangulation” (as Bill Clinton was through most of his presidency). They’d rather fudge on environmental policy to avoid losing at electoral politics.
There may be some common sense to that approach. Sometimes, though, the pragmatist’s view doesn’t comport with reality. While four to six of the congressional districts rated “toss-up” in the 2010 election are districts with a special interest in dirty energy, 13 are suburban, urban or Florida districts—where the anti-fossil-fuel message is likely to resonate. (I crunched the numbers here.)
Increasingly, Democrats represent well-to-do suburbanites, precisely the kinds of voters who’d be receptive to real leadership on clean energy. Last year, USA Today analyzed census data to find that congressional Democrats “represent a far different constituency today than they did in 2005, when they were the minority in the House, or in 1990, when they were the majority.”
"The story is really education," David Wasserman of the non-partisan Cook Political Report told the newspaper, adding that: “‘educated, wine-drinking Democrats’ and poorer minority voters are an effective coalition because both groups are increasing in numbers.” The 10 districts with the most advanced degrees are now represented by Democrats.
So, given the lockstep opposition among House Republicans to any serious action in support of the environment, isn’t the oil spill the perfect wedge issue? Aren’t today’s voters pining for their space race moment? And hasn’t the BP spill teed up clean energy for a great communicator like Obama?
Democrats have raised a shaky finger toward pushing that hot button. Majority Leader Harry Reid insists the Senate will take up an energy bill this year. But the Senate bill still is likely to include provisions to expand offshore drilling. More importantly, the need for us as a nation—as a civilization—to overhaul our energy system for the sake of our children is being expressed in muddled, muffled tones rather than a rallying cry.
Meanwhile, our eloquent president is stuck among the tar balls, defending himself against the perception that he wasn’t angry enough at BP—and pretending, a bit disingenuously, that he’s Yosemite Sam, fuming and ready to kick the *** of that oil company rabbit.
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