In the past few weeks the McCain campaign has finally found its Rovian mojo. Confident that the press will not report that the wheels have long ago fallen off the Straight Talk Express – and for the most part it hasn’t – McCain has launched the sorts of sleazy ads that must have Lee Atwater smiling.
So far, the issue that has gotten the most traction has been the question of off-shore drilling. It is pure political posturing, as everyone – including McCain – knows. To suggest that new off-shore drilling will lower gas prices and increase our energy independence is intellectually dishonest and farcical to boot. Even oilman and big-time Republican T. Boone Pickens has said that we can’t drill our way out of this energy crisis. But Americans, according to recent polls, have fallen for the red herring. They favor drilling in big numbers.
Those poll numbers point to a major fault line between two Democratic constituencies, a fault line that has rumbled for almost 40 years. On one side of the fault are those who care about environmental issues; on the other are those working people who feel the pain of rising energy prices most acutely. Both ought to be natural Democratic voters, especially this year. But if the economy continues to stagnate, even while the environmental crisis remains unaddressed, drilling – and all that it represents – may prove to be the great wedge issue of this election.
We’ve been here before, of course. The environmental movement arrived on the national scene in 1970 with the very first Earth Day on April 22. The great promise of the “ecology” movement was that it could unite Americans in a new way. Time Magazine, in a pre-Earth Day issue, wrote that clean air and water know no class or race. Every American had a stake in a cleaner future, so the promise went, and in a nation reeling from the fractious politics of the 1960s that promise was alluring.
But the promise was short lived. Within months of the first Earth Day, we entered the first energy crisis and the economy entered a period of “stagflation.” Quickly, the environment and the economy were cast as enemies in a pitched battle. What was good for the environment was bad for the economy; good environmental policies were too expensive in an age of rising inflation and rising unemployment; environmentalists were egg-headed elitists who didn’t understand the economic pain of working-class life.
It largely worked. The initial energy of the environmental movement faded with the economy, Reagan then rolled back progress on environmental issues, and the nation avoided reckoning with greenhouse gases, peak oil, or alternatives to fossil fuels. Through much of the 1980s and 90s, the environment became a niche issue, not a central part of the national agenda.
Forty years later, however, the environmental crisis is more urgent than ever, and we are reminded of it because oil prices have slowed the entire economy to a crawl. So the McRove campaign is working hard to redirect anger at the state of the economy toward environmentalists. Right-wing shills like Kevin Ferris writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer are already trying to paint Obama as the second coming of Jimmy Carter in a cardigan sweater.
For his part, Obama must aggressively create common cause between the environment and the economy. In the 1970s the environmental movement was driven by a set of moral imperatives, an ethos that scolded that we all ought to do the right thing despite costs and inconveniences. That ethos withered in the face of economic realities. This time around, we need to insist that what is good for the environment will be good for the economy.
Just as importantly, Obama needs to counter the McRove tactics by scaring voters in return, showing them that failure to develop new energy policies will leave this nation at risk. TV commercials showing American consumers in debt to evil-looking Gazprom executives, and parades of soldiers going off to fight yet another war for oil in the Middle East. A litany of jobs lost as America falls further and further behind in the eco-technology race.
We have a much better sense now than we did in the 1970s of what economic damage is being done by our over-reliance on oil. The only way for the Obama campaign to quiet the Republican noise machine over the issue of drilling is to punch back: the nation’s economy and its working people can’t afford an energy future which promises nothing but more of the same.