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There's Votes in Them Thar Hills By: Fred Barnes
The Weekly Standard | Tuesday, June 17, 2008

For years now, John McCain has warned of the peril to America in sending $400 billion a year to foreign countries in return for oil. He's been loud and relentless on the subject--and wise. "It's a national security issue," he declared last week at a town hall meeting in New York City. Much of the money goes to countries that "do not like us very much," he noted. That was McCain's understated way of saying the beneficiaries include Iran, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia, countries in which anti-American forces find aid and comfort.

So you'd think McCain would favor an unbridled effort to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. But he doesn't. There's an intellectual and political hole in McCain's position, a lack of coherence that hurts both his presidential campaign and that of Republican congressional candidates.

Republicans have seized on public anger over $4 per gallon gasoline and are calling for domestic oil production in federal lands and offshore areas now closed to exploration and drilling. Since polls show the public agrees with them, Republicans believe "drilling"--the one-word capsulation of the issue--is their strongest political talking point in 2008. Indeed, it may be their only good domestic issue.

But they desperately need a champion to carry their message, someone whom the national media cannot ignore. And that should be McCain, the Republican presidential candidate. Except for one thing: He doesn't go along with their approach in important ways. He sounds, sometimes anyway, like a liberal Democrat or a lobbyist for the environmental movement.

McCain favors increased domestic oil production, but not drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the barren area with large (and recoverable) oil reserves. President Bush and most Republicans want to open ANWR for drilling and have for years. But McCain is adamant. His aides insist it's a waste of time trying to persuade him to change his mind. He wouldn't want oil companies to drill in ANWR, McCain says, "any more than I would want them to drill in the Grand Canyon or the Everglades."

As for exploration and drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida, McCain says that's fine. Only there's a catch: States must decide. "I would like to give them incentives and increased revenues from oil that was recovered off the shores of Florida and California, et cetera, but being a federalist, I am not going to force them to do that," he told Glenn Beck last month.

A federalist on what he regards as a grave national security threat? That's an odd stance. It seems more like a dodge--a very un-McCain-like tactic--than a logical position. Nor does he take into account the new technology that allows drilling for oil and gas in deep waters far offshore with little risk of spillage or pollution of beaches.

In McCain's defense, he acquired his environmental leanings honestly, not opportunistically. He adopted the conservationist strain of his Arizona predecessor, Barry Goldwater, and was influenced on ANWR when he served in the House with Morris Udall, the Arizona Democrat who was something of a mentor to McCain.

But his 2000 race for the Republican presidential nomination also played a role. In town hall meetings, he was repeatedly asked about global warming. His answer was that he'd look into it. He did and, unlike many Republicans, began to view it as a serious problem.

McCain is also a fierce critic of oil companies, again putting him at odds with congressional Republicans. "I am very angry, frankly, at the oil companies, not only because of the obscene profits they have made, but their failure to invest in alternative energy to help us eliminate our dependence on foreign oil," he said at the town hall session in New York City. A recent Gallup poll found the percentage of Americans who blame the oil companies for the spike in gasoline prices has declined dramatically.

Like Bush and most Republicans, McCain is a strong proponent of nuclear energy, and he often cites France's use of nuclear power for 80 percent of its electricity as a model for America. He wants to make oil independence "the nation's priority." But he'd achieve it with nuclear power and by developing alternative sources of energy that may not come on line for decades. More domestic oil production is not a priority.

Republicans in Congress, however, see expanded oil production as a far safer bet for the foreseeable future, though they back development of other sources of energy too. Democrats, in contrast, oppose increased domestic oil production and sought last week (unsuccessfully) to impose a windfall profits tax on oil companies. McCain opposed that idea.

House Republican leaders John Boehner and Roy Blunt have done an extremely effective job of connecting limits on domestic production with high gasoline prices. In the Senate, minority leader Mitch McConnell has jumped on the bandwagon. But congressional Republicans can attract only so much attention.

They have, in effect, teed up the issue for McCain. They're willing to forgive him his apostasy on ANWR. According to Blunt, "ANWR is part of the solution, but it's not the only part. There's plenty of evidence [of other oil reserves] for him to move toward more production even if he doesn't on ANWR." The offshore oil reserves and the untapped oil shale in the west have even more potential and wouldn't require a McCain flip-flop.

On this issue, Republicans need McCain, and he needs them. With gasoline at four bucks a gallon and more and money flowing to America's adversaries, McCain has a legitimate excuse for becoming a strong promoter of greater energy production at home. In fact, he's laid out the national security rationale for it and persuaded nearly everyone but himself.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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