The quality of U.S. political debate has not fared well in the age of cable news scream-a-thons and 30-second sound bites. But that quality plummeted to new depths during last week’s idiotic exchange between President George W. Bush and his opponent Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., over the nation’s energy policy. Neither candidate seemed capable of anything more than cheap shots over who is more qualified to give Americans cheaper gas. This spells bad news for an energy policy in need of some fresh thinking.
On Tuesday, Kerry fired the opening salvo by blaming the president for not doing enough to keep gas prices low and urging the administration to stop contributing to the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. That criticism was well-timed, coming just a day before the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ decision to cut oil production by 4 percent. Bush countered by accusing Kerry of supporting higher gas taxes. The latest Bush campaign advertisements, airing in 18 key states, go so far as to call Kerry’s energy ideas “wacky.”
Those ideas are anything but “wacky.” The Kerry campaign rightly points out that drilling for more oil makes little sense when only 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves lie beneath U.S. soil. The senator has promised a new Manhattan Project to develop alternative energy sources, reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and create up to 500,000 energy-related jobs over the next decade. All this presents a welcome contrast to the Bush administration’s reflexive commitment to drilling in the Alaskan wilderness and maintaining cozy relationships with dictatorial oil producers such as Saudi Arabia.
Unfortunately, both men run scared from the two ideas most likely to wean the United States from its pathological dependence on cheap oil: higher gas taxes and stricter fuel-economy standards. Neither proposal is likely to win votes in a presidential race, but each would go a long way toward changing this country’s gas-guzzling, big-car culture.
Bush and Kerry offer deeply contrasting approaches to energy policy, and voters will be able to choose the best one come November. That choice will be less painful if the two men can get beyond easy sound bites and into real solutions to the country’s energy dilemma.