Offshore drilling is like pregnancy – there is no halfway. So, it is more than a little surprising that President Barack Obama, who campaigned against off-shore drilling along the Eastern seaboard, has now decided to embrace it as part of his effort to pass a climate change bill. The Post’s headline this morning – "In drilling decision, a political maneuver" – is not helpful to a President who aspires to appear principled.
I am reluctant to question the political savvy of the man who got health care reform through Congress. And, Obama’s promise to be a transformative politician certainly does not preclude actually doing politics. Horse trading is part of politics. If allowing offshore drilling scurries up enough votes to pass the already slightly bipartisan climate change bill, it may be a fair trade. But, why make such a large concession in advance of negotiations?
The protestations from the environmental community are significant for two reasons. First, most environmental advocates have been telling the rest of us that climate change is a real, significant threat, and so it is. Sen. Inhofe doesn’t think so, and rightwing cranks have cited his criticisms of the science that undergirds the concern, but that is a bit like citing a Holocaust denier on the subject of genocide. Will the environmentalists agree to a deal that involves a genuine sacrifice of a different, less global, concern to achieve legislation that addressed the catastrophic potential of climate change? Will they let the perfect be the enemy of the good?
Second, the President’s decision, and the environmentalists’ criticisms, illustrate the most vexing political problem for the President, really for almost any President, namely, while they campaign using vague, contentless nouns like "change," different voters place upon them their own hopes, some of which are going to get dashed when the political rubber hits the policy road. I think most Democrats are concerned about the environment and tend to favor legislation that protects it, but for some Democrats, environmental protection is the defining and decisive issue. With most on the Left, the passage of health care, and the draw down in forces in Iraq which continues apace even if it is rarely commented upon in the media, is sufficient to ensure their support for the President’s re-election. But, midterms are about motivating voters, and environmentalists are highly motivated on their issues. In the wake of yesterday’s decision, many of them may choose to sit out November’s elections.
The President’s decision will surely burnish another campaign goal of Obama’s, his pledge to work in a bipartisan fashion and transcend the narrow partisanship that too often impedes congressional action. As mentioned, the climate change bill already has the support of Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), so it had some claim to the bipartisan label. Obama’s move also helps shore up support from conservative Democratic Senators in Virginia and Alaska. But, after watching the bruising battle for health care, it is hard not to conclude that seeking bipartisanship, especially in an election year, is something of a fool’s errand.
On the merits, candidate Obama seemed closer to the truth than President Obama. The potential increase in domestic oil and gas production, marginal if not insignificant, does not seem to outweigh the risk of environmental damage, with the consequent damage to key economic sectors such as fisheries and travel. No one wants to go to the Outer Banks if those banks are soaked with petroleum. The President’s announcement came from political, not policy, necessity.
Criticizing a politician for being a politician is ridiculous. But, I doubt the environmental community will see it that way.
Michael Sean Winters