Has McCain Walked Into An Energy Trap?

Has McCain Walked Into An Energy Trap?

The energy debate took what could be a significant turn this past weekend: a bipartisan effort in Congress has created headaches for both Barack Obama and John McCain. But while the presumptive Democratic nominee has been criticized for acquiescing to the idea of some off-shore drilling, his Republican counterpart finds himself in a more tenuous position: cast as an unwilling-to-compromise defender of big oil, on the wrong side of public opinion.

On Friday, a group of ten Senators, hoping to break a stalemate on the nation's energy debate, unveiled compromise legislation to open new areas in the Gulf of Mexico to drilling (in addition to allowing exploration as close to 50 miles off of Florida's Gulf coast) while also raising taxes on major oil companies.

The five Democrats and five Republicans behind the effort were quickly joined by Obama, who objects to drilling but called the compromise "a good faith effort at a new bipartisan beginning." For this he was labeled a flip-flopper by Republican critics and given a slap on the wrist by some environmental advocates.

The short-term backlash may pale in comparison to the potholes that confront McCain. The Arizona Republican's campaign has been opaque in its response to the Gang of Ten. An anonymous aide to the Senator was quoted in the Wall Street Journal applauding the efforts, but said his boss wouldn't support the proposal because "he cannot and will not support legislation that raises taxes."

The stance has some Democrats chomping at the bits. For starters, adopting the position that Big Oil shouldn't take a hit is risky politics. A CNN/Opinion Research Poll released in mid-June showed that 62 percent of Americans blamed "unethical behavior" by industry players as the culprit for high gas prices, compared to the 32 percent who attributed the cost at the pump to basic economic supply and demand. A Gallup poll released around the same time brought the point home even further: 60 percent of Americans said that it was U.S. oil companies that deserved blame for the high gas prices, compared to 49 percent who blamed the Bush administration.

Moreover, while the American public is generally supportive of drilling, they also don't view it as a harmless enterprise. In a late July Belden Russonello & Stewart poll, 63 percent of respondents said that opening up public lands to oil and gas drilling was "more likely to enrich oil companies than to lower gas prices for American consumers."

McCain is stuck in a conundrum: express support for the Gang of Ten and incur the wrath of anti-tax crusaders or continue rolling the dice against public opinion and risk being painted as a stooge of the oil lobby. His $1.3 million in oil and gas donations in June only furthers the frame.

"I think the problem with McCain's position is that he keeps saying I'm in support for all of the above. But when it comes down to specifics in what he will really support, the only thing that comes through loud and clear is more drilling. And I think that is the big vulnerability on his part," said Bob Sussman, an energy expert for the liberal Center for American Progress. "The 'tax the oil company' issue is really difficult for Republicans, but the polling data indicates that the public thinks the oil companies have big role to play... I don't know what is really going on here or if McCain is thinking this through carefully. But I think this is undermining his credibility and to some degree is his hallmark approach: looking for bipartisan solutions to problems."

Facing a potential backlash, McCain has focused his attention on blaming congressional inaction and proclaiming Obama more eager to pursue tire inflation than off-shore drilling. The Democratic Party, nevertheless, clearly thinks it has the makings of a winning hand in the Gang of Ten. On Tuesday evening, the DNC put out a press release calling McCain hypocritical for lamenting the lack of "bipartisan compromises," while "currently fighting a bipartisan compromise on [energy]." In private, meanwhile, Democratic officials note the irony that McCain -- whose candidacy has been based in large part on his ability to forge consensus -- has ceded to Obama a constructive role in a bipartisan issue.

"McCain has backed himself into a box on this," said one high-ranking Hill aide. "In the end he might have to do exactly what Obama has done: join the compromise while saying he objects sternly to the taxes. But even then he risks getting killed by his conservative base."

And yet, there is a way to go before McCain truly risks trouble. The Gang of Ten compromise has some tepid but important verbal support within Democratic leadership. Majority Leader Harry Reid said he did "not agree with every part of it," but thought the proposal included "some very good ideas." Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, said on Monday that drilling could be part of a "larger energy package," a cover of sorts for Blue Dog Democrats and others who back the measure.

But Democrats are far from coalescing around the compromise proposal. Republicans, meanwhile, are with almost lockstep in opposition. And Congress is on recess for another month. Should McCain be forced to cast a tough vote it will likely come, if at all, when energy is not the front-burner campaign issue it is today.

"It is hard to predict if it will come to the Senate floor," said a Democratic aide. "Leadership will take in everyone's ideas. But right now everybody is in an information-gathering mode. And then, if there are some good ideas in this Gang of Ten proposal it will probably be considered. They are clearly not going to get the shaft, given that our nominee supports it."

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