04/30/2008 10:57 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pandering on Energy: Clinton/McCain--Yes, Obama--No

When I read yesterday's account of the debate over what to do about rising gasoline prices, I really was astounded by the pandering--though I sometimes wonder why one would be astounded in this era where getting elected is far more important than taking a principled position. On this issue, the scorecard is clear: Sens. Clinton and McCain failed miserably and Sen. Obama took the right stand.

Let's start with the obvious: people are feeling a lot of economic pain, though I would argue that that pain has been there for a very long time, years before the collective political wisdom declared the country in a "recession". They have nowhere to turn to get easy cash now that their housing-value ATM's are gone, hundreds of thousands of people are losing their jobs or on the verge of losing their jobs, health care is still a disaster, pensions are evaporating, the cost of food is going up and...the list is long and unpleasant.

And, then, there are fuel costs. I've been working a bit with the truckers who, as you may have read, are organizing, in a truly grassroots campaign, protests against the rising fuel costs. They have a broader view of the problem, focusing on the obscene profits being made by the oil companies. You can understand their plight and, at the same time, not succumb to meaningless and, ultimately harmful proposals--and, certainly, you would hope for such leadership from people who are competing for the highest office in the land.

So, come Sens. Clinton and McCain to this issue and what do they propose?

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton lined up with Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, in endorsing a plan to suspend the federal excise tax on gasoline, 18.4 cents a gallon, for the summer travel season.

Sen. Obama was correct when he said:

Mr. Obama derided the McCain-Clinton idea of a federal tax holiday as a "short-term, quick-fix" proposal that would do more harm than good, and said the money, which is earmarked for the federal highway trust fund, is badly needed to maintain the nation's roads and bridges.

This is pandering at its worse. First, though I'm all for Sen. Clinton's proposal to levy a windfall profits tax on the oil companies, there is zero reason to suspend the gas tax. Eliminating the gas tax for the summer might save consumers $40-$50, on average. That is a ridiculous sum--and reminds me of the pain the whole nation suffered (massive unnecessary deficits and a widening of the gap between rich and poor) from the great share of the Bush tax cuts enjoyed by most people (an average of $300). It makes people think you are doing something when, in fact, all you are doing is scoring some political points and actually making the problem worse.

Second, the gas tax actually is an important thing that funds the fixing of roads, bridges and the rest of the infrastructure that makes the economy function. You need not travel more than a few miles in any city to understand how badly those funds are needed. Once you start suspending the gas tax for one reason, it becomes a target for any politician looking to score a few points against "government spending."

Third, and maybe the most important point, the predicament so many Americans find themselves in when they go to the pump to fill up their cars is a legacy of our political and economic system and our long history of refusing to face up to reality: that we guzzle cheap gas relative to the rest of the world, drive idiotic cars, encourage suburban sprawl that is an oil company executive's wet dream and exist in a political system that rewards oil and coal while killing alternative energy.

I am no Tom Friedman fan and find his views on globalization to be predictable coming from a real elitist (as opposed to someone who is unfairly painted as an elitist for political reasons). I say this mostly to underscore how right he is in today's column:

It is great to see that we finally have some national unity on energy policy. Unfortunately, the unifying idea is so ridiculous, so unworthy of the people aspiring to lead our nation, it takes your breath away. Hillary Clinton has decided to line up with John McCain in pushing to suspend the federal excise tax on gasoline, 18.4 cents a gallon, for this summer's travel season. This is not an energy policy. This is money laundering: we borrow money from China and ship it to Saudi Arabia and take a little cut for ourselves as it goes through our gas tanks. What a way to build our country.


The McCain-Clinton proposal is a reminder to me that the biggest energy crisis we have in our country today is the energy to be serious -- the energy to do big things in a sustained, focused and intelligent way. We are in the midst of a national political brownout.

There is an opportunity here for a teachable moment. Sen. Obama will win the nomination (it's just a matter of time, as much as a lot of people are wringing their hands over the lead-up to the eventuality of the day so count me as one who is bored by the media-induced drama). He could set the tone for a future administration by simply stating, as I think he has tried in the past:

In the heat of this battle, I could troll for a few more votes by offering people a promise that has no meaning, but I won't. It may cost me votes in the upcoming primaries but what is more important is the future of the country and the planet. Telling you that I could save you a few bucks in your bill at the gasoline pump might make you feel good--but we won't solve the crisis that forces you to pay more at the pump by getting rid of a tiny amount we all pay to make sure that we have the basic services our society needs--roads, bridges etc...The economic pain you feel today is a result of a system that is controlled by [list of foes here]. If you elect me president, we are going to take on [list the obvious foes here] and make sure that your economic future is not controlled by [list Exxon etc. here]. It will also mean we will have to make some significant changes in the way we think about creating energy and using it. But, taking the power way from [Exxon etc.] will mean that we, the people, can determine that the price we pay at the pump does not come at the expense of our families and our planet.