The Politics Of Oil In An Election Year

[ Posted Thursday, July 31st, 2008 – 16:51 UTC ]

Republicans think they've discovered the way to beat Democrats in this year's election, with a strategy that can be summed up as: drilling for votes. Democrats, confident that logic is on their side in the oil drilling debate, may be ignoring this at their peril. It is too early to tell, of course, but the Democrats need to come up with a way to frame the debate to their advantage fast, or else they risk appearing as if they have no idea what to do about high gas prices.

I've said before that the price of gas is intimately tied to how Americans see whoever is in charge in Washington. Presidential approval ratings track very closely with the price of gasoline. This is not a new phenomenon. But Bush isn't running for re-election, so John McCain is free to say whatever he wants on the subject. Which he has increasingly been doing.

Democrats seem confident that they're polling ahead on most other issues, and have not been giving this the attention it deserves. But elections sometimes hinge on a single issue, and Democrats are on the wrong side of the polls on this one. Sure, it's nice that Barack Obama has both a better plan for foreign policy and a better take on most domestic issues that voters care about. But rebutting "let's drill now" (the Republican talking point making inroads with average Americans) is tough to do. It takes facts, and long-winded explanations. And that doesn't always work in a campaign.

Polls have shown that somewhere north of two-thirds of Americans think more offshore drilling would be just dandy. They don't even much care whether it would bring the price at the pump down any time soon, or not. It's the visceral urge to say, "Why isn't someone doing something about this?!?"

Now, if you listen closely to John McCain, what he is proposing is lifting the congressional ban on expanding offshore drilling, but leaving it up to each individual state as to whether they'd allow it off their shores or not. He's a states' rights kind of guy, in other words. But this nuance is lost on most people, which I have been arguing is going to cost McCain some votes in a key swing state -- Florida. And writing off Florida would mean John McCain likely wouldn't be elected.

But McCain seems willing to take the chance. If you look at which states might be affected by this (states with a shoreline, in other words), he doesn't have much to lose, outside of Florida. Hawaii is solidly Democratic. Alaska is solidly pro-drilling. The entire West Coast is likely going to vote for Obama. Likewise all of New England, and the Atlantic seaboard down to Maryland. Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia all have an Atlantic coast, but beach tourism isn't that big a percentage of their total economies. The Gulf states all already have drilling off their shores. Which leaves Florida.

Florida has one of the longest coastlines of any state touching an ocean. And a large part of their economy is based on being a tourist destination. Which is why they've been consistently against offshore drilling (up until now, at least). One oil spill could cause a collapse of the tourist industry. So it's not just tree-huggers who have been against offshore drilling, it is also Big Business.

But putting aside the question of Florida's electoral votes for the time being, an even bigger question looms: will the Republicans shut down the government to force an end to the offshore drilling ban?

This scenario was raised by's Capitol Briefing blog today. Due to Congress not doing the job they're supposed to be doing (which happens all too frequently, no matter which party is in charge), this year's budget will likely not be ready on October 1, the start of a new federal fiscal year. What usually happens in such a situation is that a "continuing resolution" (CR) is passed which allows the government to keep functioning (and issuing paychecks) for a short period while the budget is hammered out. Sometimes an entire year's budget is even covered this way, when Congress completely punts on their responsibility to complete a budget.

But, buried in such a CR would have to be a renewal of the congressional offshore drilling ban, because technically it expires at the end of September. Which is where Republicans see an opening. From the Capitol Briefing article:

"The moratorium on offshore drilling expires on Sept. 30th," House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said today. "What we're saying is that we ought to allow it to expire, and if Democrats want to reinstitute the ban, they'll do so at their own peril."

But how far will Republicans go? If a CR isn't signed into law by Sept. 30, the federal government will shut down on Oct. 1, the first day of the next fiscal year. Will the GOP risk such a move over the drilling ban? Boehner wouldn't quite bite on that question, saying: "I think it's an important issue and we'll have a lot more to say about it in September."

Now, the knee-jerk reaction of Democrats is going to be: "The last time they did this, we won the issue in the public's mind." This is a dangerous position to take this time around, though, because the last time it happened Newt Gingrich was seen as turning it into a personal crusade and the issue he was defending (balancing the budget) was an abstract sort of thing in the average American's mind. This time it won't be. Every time every American stands in front of a gas pump, watching their hard-earned dollars disappear to the Middle East, they're angry.

The article does point this out, in a way, as it goes on to say (emphasis in original):

Just about anyone over the age of 12 likely remembers the last time the federal government closed for business in late 2005 [sic] and the beginning of 2006 [sic]. President Clinton faced off with congressional Republicans over spending levels and legislative priorities in a host of appropriations bills. After much angst and trading of blame, Republicans essentially blinked, as the majority of the public blamed them rather than Clinton for images of shuttered offices and idle workers.

The question for Republicans in 2008 is whether the politics of a potential shutdown have shifted in their favor. Polls do show that a majority of the public wants more land opened to oil drilling, and the GOP may be gaining traction by blaming Democrats for blocking it. But at the same time, a showdown over the CR won't just be a referendum on whether to drill offshore. It will also be a debate Democrats will frame as about whether Republicans are willing to cut off government services for the elderly, children, puppies and any other innocent bystanders you can think of.

[Those dates should be "1995," and "1996," unless he's talking about an alternate universe where Bill Clinton had four terms in office.]

It's obviously not clear that Republicans will actually go forward with such a risky strategy. But Democrats had better be ready for it, just in case. Because from the campaign trail, this seems to be pretty much the only issue the Republicans (led by McCain) have left to talk about which may have any traction among voters. Meaning that they're going to hammer on it as hard as they possibly can. Whether they shut the government down or not, that much is certain. Unless gas starts selling for under two bucks a gallon before Election Day, which is not very likely.

So far, Democrats have tried to match Republican gimmicks on gas prices with their own, but it hasn't done much good for them. And some Democrats are even on the GOP side on the issue. They go home to their districts, and all they hear about is constituents screaming about gas prices. So they want to be seen as "doing something" about it, but there's no Democratic consensus about what, exactly, they should do. So supporting Republican gimmicks starts to look like a pretty good idea to them. Hillary Clinton actually led the way on this, agreeing with McCain over the "gas tax rebate" plan, back in the primary season.

I don't have an easy answer for Democrats on this one, personally. The stark fact is that almost nothing Congress or the White House can do will bring gas prices down fast enough to matter before the election.

Of course, one Democrat did have an idea for a long-term scheme to reduce our reliance on foreign oil supplies. His name is Al Gore, and his plan set the laudable (and daunting) goal of switching over to non-carbon-emitting power plants within ten years. The merits of doing so when it comes to gas prices (and the feasibility of doing so) are debatable. But whether it's a gimmick or not is not really the point. Pretty much everything politicians are suggesting at this point can be seen in one way or another as a gimmick. The question is: would it be an effective gimmick in the election? It certainly does have one thing going for it -- it's easy to frame as an issue. It would fit just fine on a bumper sticker, in other words.

Congress isn't going to solve our oil addiction before this year's election, one way or another. That's going to take some time, no matter what you believe we should do about it. But Republicans see the offshore drilling issue as a bludgeon to use this fall, so all I'm really saying here is that Democrats need to sharpen up their position to be able to counter the "drill drill drill" talking point. As I said, they ignore the political implications of this issue at their peril. Because it's not going to be enough to just say: "Bush and Cheney are two oil men, it's all their fault." Americans are going to be looking for solutions. And, gimmicks or not, candidates better be able to talk about their plans for the future.


-- Chris Weigant


10 Comments on “The Politics Of Oil In An Election Year”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    I heard that the oil companies are not even drilling in all of the areas where they have licences so why give them more if they are not going to exploit them?

    If this is a state issue then not renewing the ban won't matter since it is the state that issue the licences - or is it the federal government?

    The problem is that the American people do not want to change their ways so the easy answer is to have more oil.

    We all know how hard it is to eat right and exercise daily so why should we expect drivers/car manufactures/oil companies/everyone with something to lose to change their habits?


  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    How’s this excerpt from a recent Biden op-ed for the basis of a grand Democratic talking point...

    “When you first hear the idea "let's allow offshore drilling and it will cut gas prices," it sounds like it makes sense, especially when gas is more than $4 a gallon. But the facts say otherwise.

    “The only way we can achieve energy and climate security in this country is to reduce our dependence on oil.

    “Unfortunately, President Bush and Sen. John McCain are trying to sell us on the oil companies' old argument that repealing the 27-year old moratorium on drilling in protected areas offshore will lower gas prices. Americans need to put this tired debate to rest. Our security -- both here at home and abroad -- depends on it.

    “First, the oil companies in this country now hold 7,000 leases to drill offshore, yet only 20 percent of those leases are producing oil. That is 68 million acres for which they already have the rights to drill. Nearly 80 percent of our offshore oil is already available for leasing -- approximately 54 billion barrels total. They could be drilling in these areas, but they are not.”

    Republicans may see the off-shore oil drilling issue as a bludgeon, but it is nothing more than a fart in a windstorm. And, if Democrats can’t expose that for what it is then, frankly, they don’t deserve to be in control of the executive branch.

  3. [3] 
    akadjian wrote:


    You knocked it out of the park here. Been thinking about this for a while and I can't agree with you more that part of the Republican strategy is to focus the election on a single issue where they believe the majority of people agree with them.

    And while I believe it's true that we can't "drill our way out of this" the more convincing frame is that of the Republicans. They keep it simple and all the Democrats seem to do is counter with long-winded explanations.

    I have talked with many Republicans and Independents and most of them see it this way.

    The Republican frame is:

    - The cause of high oil prices is low supply
    - We need to increase the supply to lower prices

    At the very least, Republicans and Independents I know will say: Why not both drill and move towards energy independence?

    If viewed this way, they then see Democrats as obstructing part of the solution.

    @Elizabeth and fstanley: There's some good frames in both your replies.

    - "Reduce our dependency on foreign oil" really resonated with me
    - Liked the analogy of eating right and exercising daily - it speaks to a long term solution and is a nice frame people can relate too

    I don't have any easy answers on this either. Coming up with a short, concise frame is one of the hardest things to do though it seems so simple. Here's a couple thoughts:

    1. Reframe the problem as "increasing demand" rather than lack of supply.
    2. Reset the energy vision for this country: "We want to lead the world in developing alternative energies. This is a tremendous economic opportunity for our country."
    3. Republicans are missing the boat on this opportunity by focusing solely on drilling. This is not a viable strategy. This is the same policy we've had for 8 years. (Implication: where has it gotten us?)

    Great post and discussion, Chris!
    - David

  4. [4] 
    akadjian wrote:

    p.s. Michale, I'd be interested in your thoughts on this.

    From my perspective, I believe the Democrats have a better long term vision and should be emphasizing that we need a long term strategy that is different from the past 8 years.

    If you're out there, how do you feel about the issue? What do you like/dislike about both sides' arguments? If you could write Obama's energy policy what would it be?

    Very curious.

  5. [5] 
    BLaws wrote:

    A few weeks ago I wrote:

    "I predict that Obama will sign off on off shore leasing at some point… in a compromise deal that will result in major funding of alternative energy projects. That's why he supported the 2005 Energy bill.

    People need to get over their far one sided politics."

    Elixabeth wrote:

    "As for off-shore oil leasing…if Obama supports NEW leases for off-shore drilling, then that will demonstrate to me that he does not understand this issue. Frankly, I don't believe he will support NEW off-shore drilling"

    The thing is, he understands the issue just fine. And he's just set up the Republicans to be obstructionists and made himself into the bi-partisan candidate.

    From Huffington Post:

    "My interest is in making sure we've got the kind of comprehensive energy policy that can bring down gas prices," Obama said in an interview with The Palm Beach Post.

    "If, in order to get that passed, we have to compromise in terms of a careful, well thought-out drilling strategy that was carefully circumscribed to avoid significant environmental damage _ I don't want to be so rigid that we can't get something done."

    In Congress, both parties have fought bitterly over energy policy for weeks, with Republicans pressing for more domestic oil drilling and Democrats railing about oil company profits. Despite hundreds of hours of House and Senate floor debate, lawmakers will leave Washington for their five-week summer hiatus this week with an empty tank.

    "The Republicans and the oil companies have been really beating the drums on drilling," Obama said in the Post interview. "And so we don't want gridlock. We want to get something done."

    Later, Obama issued a written statement warmly welcoming a proposal sent to Senate leaders Friday by 10 senators _ five from each party. Their proposal seeks to break the impasse over offshore oil development and is expected to be examined more closely in September after Congress returns from its summer recess.

    The so-called Gang of 10 plan would lift drilling bans in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, but retain an environmental buffer zone extending 50 miles off Florida's beaches and in the South Atlantic off Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, but only if a state agrees to the oil and gas development along its coast. The states would share in revenues from oil and gas development.

    Drilling bans along the Pacific coast and the Northeast would remain in place under this compromise.

    The plan also includes energy initiatives Obama has endorsed. "It would repeal tax breaks for oil companies so that we can invest billions in fuel-efficient cars, help our automakers re-tool, and make a genuine commitment to renewable sources of energy like wind power, solar power, and the next generation of clean, affordable biofuels," Obama noted.

    "Like all compromises, it also includes steps that I haven't always supported," Obama conceded. "I remain skeptical that new offshore drilling will bring down gas prices in the short-term or significantly reduce our oil dependence in the long-term, though I do welcome the establishment of a process that will allow us to make future drilling decisions based on science and fact."

    Nevertheless, Obama said the plan, put forward by mostly moderates and conservatives led by Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., "represents a good faith effort at a new bipartisan beginning."

    Earlier in the day, Obama pushed for a windfall profits tax to fund $1,000 emergency rebate checks for consumers besieged by high energy costs, a counter to McCain's call for more offshore drilling.

    The pitch for putting some of the economic burden of $4-a-gallon gasoline on the oil industry served a dual purpose for Obama: It allowed him to talk up an economic issue, seen by many as a strength for Democrats and a weakness for Republicans, and at the same time respond to criticism from McCain that Obama's opposition to offshore drilling leads to higher prices at the pump.

    He can paint McCain as being a rigid partisan while can show that Obama is willing to work together to get things done. If the Republicans fight the compromise plan they won't have much to stand on. They will be painted as in the pocket of big oil, obstructionists, and not really willing to get things done.

    I knew Obama would go this route because he's been like this his entire career. He looks at an issue from both sides, and is willing to compromise to get a solution both sides can agree on. The problem with our government right now is people have become rigidly partisan and view "compromise" as caving in.

    Which is completely stupid because no one can do that in their regular life. Anyone who is married knows that everything is a compromise.

  6. [6] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    I am certainly all for compromise and I agree with you, wholeheartedly, that many people have indeed become too rigidly partisan and wedded to their ideology to see the truth of any matter anymore.

    I don't know enough about the so-called 'gang of 10' and their compromise energy bill to say much more. You wouldn't by any chance have a quick link to what's in it, would you. If not, I'll just take some time and check into it a little further.

  7. [7] 
    BLaws wrote:

    Some basics:

    To pay for their proposal, lawmakers would raise the major oil companies' taxes by excluding them from tax credits that apply to other manufacturers.

    The Gang of 10 proposal would encourage states to allow drilling off their shores by sharing some of the federal offshore royalty revenues with the states.

    The bill will require opening additional areas for development in the Gulf of Mexico and allow drilling off the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, incumbent on approval from those states. Any drilling activity approved by the states would be done at least 50 miles from shore. A commission would also be created recommending areas for leasing in the future.

    But unlike the other four states, Florida would not get a choice on whether to allow drilling off its coasts.

    In compromise to the offshore drilling proposal, the bill provides billions of dollars of research and development money to assist US automakers in achieving the goal of transitioning 85% of all new vehicles to run on alternative, non-petroleum based fuels within 20 years. The Senators propose paying for the spending by eliminating $30 billion in tax breaks for energy companies and requiring that the federal government get its cut of revenue from Gulf of Mexico oil leases. U.S. consumers will receive tax breaks up to $7500 for buying vehicles that run on alternative fuels.

    A very important element of the legislation is the extension of tax breaks for renewable energy development and energy efficiency to 2012, something congress has thus far been unable to do in this session.

    Basically they are going to use the Oil Companies to pay for changing the country over to renewable energy. Considering we export millions of barrels of gasoline already, any oil we don't use the Oil companies could just export to the world (China/India) and bring some of our wealth back to the US.

  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Thanks for that, BLaws...but, wouldn't have a link for any of that, would you...I would really like to see the language that will be used in the bill...the devil is in the details, and all that...

    But, I am still confused. I would like to know why we should think that any drilling whatsoever would occur in the NEW lease areas when the oil companies already have lots of off-shore leases where they are able to drill but, to date, have not. In other words, something smells in Demnark, me thinks.

  9. [9] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    ...or in Denmark, as the case may be...

  10. [10] 
    BLaws wrote:

    I don't believe anything has been formally written just yet, that it's a preliminary plan.

    "I would like to know why we should think that any drilling whatsoever would occur in the NEW lease areas when the oil companies already have lots of off-shore leases where they are able to drill but, to date, have not."

    I believe that's what Obama and the 5 Dems are counting on. That in the end the oil companies won't drill in those protected areas anyway so they won't really be giving up anything, and in the end will just get lease money and what they want anyway. And the real money to pay for all of this will come from cutting the 30+ billion in tax breaks the oil companies get now.

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