7 Ways McCain Can Use Energy to Beat Obama

The GOP candidate can find new ways to talk about the environment.

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"Climate change is never going to rise to the status of a top-tier political issue" is how one top climate-policy expert recently described the political lay of the land to me. Just take a look at the results of a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. The top issue for voters (27 percent) was job creation and economic growth. Right behind was the war in Iraq (24 percent). Then came energy and gas prices (18 percent). Far down the list were the environment and global warming, at a minuscule 4 percent. So despite all the media attention on global warming as an existential threat to humanity, it still scores a bit below illegal immigration in the hierarchy of voter concerns.

And there lies an opportunity for John McCain to turn the issues of energy and the environment to his advantage in his race against Barack Obama. Here are a few pieces of advice for Team McCain that I have gathered after talking to some political folks in recent days.

1) Stop talking about global warming. Or at least don't talk about it nearly as much as "energy independence." The latter has an incredible resonance with voters for national security and economic reasons. The former, apparently, not so much. In his much-derided New Orleans speech, McCain mentioned "climate" or "environment" a total of four times, "energy" eight times. Since voters seem to be about four times as concerned with the cost of energy as with climate change, maybe the ratio of "energy" mentions to "climate change" mentions should be at least 4 to 1 rather than 2 to 1 in all speeches. Move energy from being an environmental issue to being an economic and national security issue.

2) Ban the color green. Not only is it a less-than-flattering hue for McCain; but it implies a kinship with an anti-oil, anticoal, antidrilling, antieconomic-growth agenda.

3) Propose drilling in ANWR while standing in ANWR. Yes, McCain has come out against drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But with oil seemingly on its way to $150 a barrel or higher, at least if you believe many top energy analysts, surely McCain would be forgiven for a flip-flop. He could trot out that famous John Maynard Keynes line, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" The end of cheap oil is one huge factual change. And McCain could set the stage, as someone recently suggested, by visiting ANWR with Alaska's governor, Sarah Palin. Recall Ike's 1952 campaign pledge: "I will go to Korea." McCain could say, "I will go to ANWR."

4) Accuse Obama of wanting to launch a pre-emptive war on the American economy. McCain could attack Obama's plan on two main fronts: its overreliance on alternative energy vs. fossil fuels and nukes, and Obama's seeming willingness to go ahead with capping carbon emissions even if India and China—America's two main economic rivals of the future—take a pass. I can almost hear McCain now: "Senator Obama's policies would be tantamount to unilateral disarmament in our economic competition with our global competitors. It is another example of his naiveté."

5) Stop blaming Big Oil. Why should McCain echo Obama in criticizing the oil companies—a blame game that a Republican can't win—when he could easily blast the Democrats for a generation of policies that have limited oil drilling and the exploitation of nuclear energy?

6) Go with a populist "cost of living" argument. You can't expect McCain to abandon his plan to cap U.S. carbon emissions. But since his plan and Obama's similar approach would both raise energy prices for consumers, McCain could explicitly call for rebating money from the auctioning of carbon allowances—we are talking trillions of dollars over the coming decades—back to consumers in the form of lower taxes. It's a populist move that he could contrast with the Democratic plan to have the government keep that money and spend it on various "green" programs.

7) Advocate a cheap Manhattan Project. Obama wants to spend something like $200 billion over 10 years on various energy schemes like a government-sponsored venture capital fund to invest in clean energy. A more modest approach comes from the group Set America Free. It wants American taxpayers to spend $12 billion over the next four years to provide incentives to auto manufacturers to produce, and consumers to purchase, plug-in and flex-fuel hybrid vehicles, as well as to mandate substantial incorporation of plug-ins and FFVs into government fleets. It also advocates providing incentives to transform existing fueling stations so they serve all liquid fuels and to enable utilities to enter the transportation fuel market. In addition, it favors government policies to encourage mass transit and reduce vehicle-miles traveled.

Now all that stuff may anger some free-market conservatives, but it would probably strike voters who want Uncle Sam to do something as both prudent and fiscally responsible.