Santa Rosa, CA -- Almost $5 a gallon -- that's what I paid for gas here Sunday on my way to an environmental awards event hosted by Representative Mike Thompson. That's some of the most expensive gasoline in American history. And this district, on the north coast of California, is the place chosen by Dick Cheney, George Bush, John McCain, and the oil industry as the Potemkin village for solving the problem -- just drill the coast!
But the 300 or so of Thompson's constituents at the event are a profile in why this ploy by Big Oil and its political henchmen won't work. People here travel long distances, on modest salaries -- but they are thinking about how to save their watersheds, get bond acts passed for mass transit, and encourage recycling. They're gritty in their opposition to oil drilling but no longer panicked -- they've watched Big Oil go after the shoreline that is their heart and soul ever since James Watt first targeted this coast in 1981. They are confident that with Thompson's support they will ride this moment out as well.
That's good old American common sense -- something that appears to be in short supply in Washington this week. For example, here's the official Bush administration view, courtesy of the Department of Energy: Drilling America's coasts would produce no new oil until 2030, and even then it would lower the price of gas by only 3.5 cents gallon. So why is this happening now? With only a few months left for the Bush administration, Big Oil's hammering down on GOP politicians. The chits are being called in. Mavericks are getting branded.
Yesterday's SF Chronicle proclaimed that the Republican Party leadership thinks that drilling is their key to electoral return from death. Senator John McCain joined them. He appears to have taken an already completed political ad, one that was supposed to be about "new" energy choices like wind and solar, and inserted a reference to more oil drilling. I almost winced when it showed up on the screen.
Political correctness comes to the Straight Talking Express. Newsweek's reaction was stunning: "Contradictions and misstatements short-circuit McCain's energy policy pronouncements." A new poll of young Americans shows that McCain's negatives have jumped percentage points in the past two months. In April, according to the Democracy Corps' polling, McCain's favorable/unfavorable ratings were 34 percent and 37 percent. They're now 30 percent and 49 percent.
Yet all the Republicans can talk about are poll numbers showing that, if you ask them in the right way, more Americans say they're in favor offshore drilling than oppose it. Senator John Ensign touted the strategy this way: "Energy is actually a huge opportunity for Republicans. Energy has the opportunity to change the climate if it's done right." But those in favor gave this answer only when reassured that such drilling will be environmentally benign -- and they are even more in favor of solutions such as more-efficient cars and green electricity. For them, they are just giving an answer to a pollster.
But the opponents of offshore oil drilling, like Mike Thompson's constituents, have a deep commitment to the places they love, the places where they live. This is everything for them. Sadly, Senator McCain has foolishly gone with the pollsters and abandoned the people. His choice will resonate in this district -- and in many others in states like Florida, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, and Oregon come November. We need to get to a place where serious politicians can't get away with stuff like this -- where the explanation "I really didn't mean it -- that was just politics" is the kiss of death; not a "get out of jail free" card.
If the Republicans think they can ride the current poll numbers on drilling for oil to victory in November, I have a bridge to sell them. It's the same one Ted Stevens tried to build with billions in public money in Alaska -- the Bridge to Nowhere.