09/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain's Bumper Sticker Strategy

Driving through eastern North Carolina last week, I saw the whole election unfold before me, thanks to a single bumper sticker: DRILL HERE, DRILL NOW. McCain's name was a mere afterthought on that one. Instead, it was all about filling up the gas tank and buying American, a poke in the eye of the sheiks. DRILL HERE, DRILL NOW. It's our oil, so it should be for us! Drill here, drill now, ya'll. (Vote McCain.)

It was so clever. So Republican. And so Virginian.

That's right -- Virginian. We Virginians understand the power of the simple slogan. Back in 1997, lots of us drove around with bumper stickers that read NO MORE CAR TAX! The candidate behind the slogan, Republican Attorney General Jim Gilmore, didn't even try to put his name on the stickers. They were just so catchy, he didn't need to. All Virginians had to know was that he was the guy who was going to cut a big tax. "Gilmore for Governor" equaled "No more car tax."

The gimmick sealed Gilmore's win in his race for governor. It was a wildly successful gimmick, too: Not only did Gilmore win, but he brought along a Republican lieutenant governor and a Republican attorney general -- a clean Republican sweep.

On the morning following the election, New York Times writer Michael Janofsky reported that leaders of the Republican National Committee planned to study Gilmore's "no gas tax" strategy as a model for elections to come.

Now, eleven years later, the simple-minded bumper stickers are back, and boy do they look good on the rear window of a 4x4. (So much more appealing, too, than another sticker I saw recently: MCCAIN -- PEACE THROUGH SUPERPOWER/FIREPOWER.)

But non-Virginians need to know how Gilmore's story played out. Within two years, his plan to phase out the tax had begun to put Virginia's budget in such a deep hole that lawmakers in his own party balked. He pushed on anyway, warning that leaving the car tax in place would be the same as a tax increase (a trick of logic that Republicans still use today -- not cutting means adding). By the end of Gilmore's term, Virginia's budget deficit had swelled to $3.2 billion. Mark Warner, Gilmore's successor, claims that once he got in office and sorted out the books, he found that the deficit was closer to $6 billion.

Incredibly, here in Virginia, Gilmore is the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate now, and he's taking on Mark Warner. No one expects Gilmore to win--or even to come close. NO MORE GAS TAX turned out to be such a fiasco that not even old diehard Republicans want him.

Yet the McCain campaign seems happy to follow Gilmore's playbook anyway. Never mind that we can't really "drill now." Getting those drills down those big long holes takes time. And never mind that "drill here" doesn't mean the oil will be just for us -- it would simply be added to the international oil market. And never mind that, even if we really could keep our oil just for ourselves, it wouldn't be enough to make us independent.

Never mind the real world, in other words. DRILL HERE, DRILL NOW, like NO MORE CAR TAX, feels strong and defiant, the equivalent of George W's "Bring 'em on!"

I wish I could say people won't fall for this bumper-sticker stupidity. But judging by what I saw while I was in North Carolina, folks across the nation are starting to look just as gullible as Virginians back in 1997. Then, we'd just had four good years with George Allen as governor. He'd walked around in cowboy boots all the time, even though he'd grown up in California. And he'd kept a noose hanging in his office as a way of saying he was tough on crime.

Gilmore, who didn't look good in boots, had to come up with his own signature. NO MORE GAS TAX! was it. And Virginians bought it hook, line, and sinker.

Seems to me there's a pattern emerging. There's Bush in his cowboy boots, acting tough on terrorists. And here comes McCain with his simple slogan. DRILL HERE, DRILL NOW.

Lord help us if we bite that hook again.