THE BLOG
10/09/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Republican Pitch on Energy: A House of Cards

grist.org

Now that the Republican convention is over (see Grist"s coverage), it's worth stepping back and assessing the big picture: Where do energy issues stand in the GOP?

(As far as I can tell, environmental issues, including climate change, stand nowhere -- the only person I heard mention McCain's cap-and-trade program is Carly Fiorina, to deafening silence. No one mentioned climate change on stage, to my knowledge. It's just not on the radar, except as a liberal plot.)

Based on what I saw at the convention, there are three concurrent threads in GOP energy world: what the pols and power brokers believe, what they tell the base, and what they tell the elite media and political establishment. It's a delicate balancing act; they've pulled it off fairly well so far, but the edifice is in danger of crumbling.

What they believe

Despite shifting rhetoric, I don't think the substance of GOP thinking on energy has changed since Cheney took office: the world is run on fossil fuels and nuclear power, it will be for the foreseeable future, and geopolitics is a matter of maneuvering for control of those resources.

GOP heavy hitters deem renewables a marginal contribution at best. As McCain said, "the truly clean technologies don't work." As Palin said, "Alternative-energy solutions are far from imminent and would require more than 10 years to develop."

Given rising demand for oil and dawning recognition that conventional sources could peak soon, the GOP reaction will be to do two things: first, use military or diplomatic means to gain control (or at least influence) over the world's major oil and gas fields and pipelines; second, aggressively develop all alternative sources of power, with the focus on unconventional fossil fuels and nuclear. That means coal, including "clean" coal and coal-to-liquids, as well as tar sands, oil shale, LNG, and lots and lots of nuclear power. Renewables will nibble at the margins, but will not receive any substantial support.

I doubt many in the GOP power structure, outside a few dimwit House members, believe we will ever be "energy independent." The goal is to be energy dominant -- to have, or to have effective control over, more energy resources than our rivals.

What they tell the base

You heard the chanting during Giuliani"s speech: drill, baby, drill! The Republican base, with its craving for Manichaean divisions, can't handle a little-bit-of-this-little-bit-of-that solution, particularly one that frankly acknowledges ongoing dependence on unsavory regimes. They need an energy position that is a) simple and intuitive, b) faintly xenophobic and jingoistic, and c) opposed by "experts" and liberals. Like everything else that fires up the base, it needs to fit into the culture war model.

That's why Sarah Palin has proven such a blockbuster pick. She combines the drilling and the anti-abortion (etc.) messages into a seamless package with a pretty face. She tells the base what it wants to hear: that liberals are listening to "extreme environmentalists" and endangering the country by blocking access to our nation's God-given oil, whatever the elite academic "experts" might say with their fancy reports and charts.

What they tell the media

The drilling uber alles message doesn't play well with the Beltway establishment or its pundit gossip squad. Not so much because it won't work -- policy details and research reports are boring -- but because it doesn't sound balanced and centrist and Very Serious. So for the pundits, we get "all of the above." We don't oppose renewables or efficiency. Of course not! We want to do that stuff along with drilling and mining everywhere.

Who could oppose that?

The danger

The GOP has long had a tacit deal with the media establishment. A lot of truly crazy stuff goes on down at the GOP base level, in direct mail, talk radio, and far-right pulpits. Most of it doesn't get broad exposure, and that's fine with Rove et al. To the D.C. press corps, there's a bit of wink-wink: We don't really believe stuff, it's just for our more enthusiastic troops. Trust us, we're Very Serious.

It's worked for a long time, so hell, it probably will again. But it can't help matters to have the GOP convention erupt with multiple chants of "drill, baby, drill," complete with delegates in hard hats and work vests. It can't help to have McCain throwing over every part of his environment/energy plans except for drilling, and picking the nation's top drilling cheerleader as his running mate. It can't help to having drilling pitched as the central means to staunch Republican political losses in November.

It's becoming more and more difficult to avoid the obvious truth that a cynical, demagogic, and substantively false policy proposal is at the core of Republican energy policy. It was for the last eight years, certainly, but McCain promised to change that. That promise is looking awfully tattered now. Will the media weave that fact into its narrative about the candidates?

Well, just last week a Washington Post editorial said, "there's not much difference between [McCain's] energy policy and that of Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.)." So maybe the house of cards will hold up until November.