Like his predecessors at moments of political urgency, President Bush can turn on a dime without losing any sleep. Even so, yesterday’s flip-flop was especially breathtaking for a son of the Oil Patch.
Time and again, Bush has spurned demands from critics he do precisely what he did yesterday.
Sometime in the 1980s, I believe, I decided the big difference between Democrats and Republicans is that Dems can identify a problem-in-the-making and maybe come up with a half-assed solution, whereas Republicans refuse to acknowledge a problem until it bites their butts.
Health care is a good example; Michael Dukakis made health care reform a big part of his 1988 platform when he ran against George H.W. Bush. As a state governor he saw the crisis we are enjoying now while it was still a couple of miles away. But when asked about health care Poppy would just look mildly befuddled and say We have the best health care system in the world; there’s no problem.
I’ve been predicting since then that some day, when enough middle-class people were really hurting, the Republicans would suddenly “discover” a health care problem and complain that Democrats let it happen. We’re just about there, finally.
I don’t believe this obstinant refusal to change course before we hit the iceberg was always true of Republicans. This article from 2004 reminds us that the first President to suggest we need to wean ourselves from dependence on foreign oil was Richard Nixon. I well remember at the time there was widespread and bipartisan realization that someday we’d have to find a way to generate power that didn’t involve fossil fuel. It’s a shame more wasn’t done then, but Vietnam and Watergate sucked the air out of just about every other issue at the time.
I also remember the Jimmy Carter energy crisis, which IMO was more annoying than today’s because there was a shortage of supply and finding an open gas station was a crapshoot. It got so that people would stop at any open gas station to “top off” their tank even when it was nearly full, because you never knew how long it would be before you could buy gas again. “This intolerable dependence on foreign oil threatens our economic independence and the very security of our nation,” Carter said. One of the causes of that crisis was instability in the Middle East, notably the Iranian revolution. It’s almost 30 years later, and here we are again.
Ronald Reagan was critical of Carter’s emphasis on conservation and developing alternative fuel sources. Reagan said in his 1980 presidential nomination acceptance speech:
Large amounts of oil and natural gas lay beneath our land and off our shores, untouched because the present administration seems to believe the American people would rather see more regulation, taxes and controls than more energy.
This became the standard excuse for not preparing for an oil-scarce future — We have plenty of oil and gas already. We just have to dig it up. The problem was that those “large amounts” were already dug up, or were in places prohibitively difficult to reach, and once pumped the oil would need to be transported through environmentally sensitive regions like Prudhoe Bay or Prince Williams Sound. Or, like ANWR, the oil in them amounts to less than what the U.S. burns in a couple of years.
And the earth ain’t makin’ more oil. So even if every little scrap of oil and gas in the United States and its territories, including offshore, were tapped and shipped to the refineries, the Day of Oil Reckoning will still come, eventually.
So why didn’t President Clinton fix the problem? you ask. As I wrote in this post, Gov. Bush made Clinton’s “failed” energy policy a campaign issue in 2000. Could Clinton have done more? Could he have worked at it harder? Yeah, probably. But the Clinton-Gore Administration wanted to pursue sissy tree-hugger policies like development of renewable energy resources and building more energy-efficient cars and appliances. Republicans in Congress wanted to drill.
In this document from 2000 the Clinton Administration claimed Congress had approved only 12 percent of the funding requested for Clinton energy programs. At the same time, Congress cut funding for existing programs the Clintonistas considered vital to meeting future energy requirements. Republicans in Congress had become fixated on drilling in ANWR as The Only Energy Crisis Solution We’ll Ever Need.
And then came the Oil Guys.
This Greg Palast BBC story from 2001 reminds us of what changed after the Bushies assumed power.
The state of California has accused the El Paso Corporation and Dynegy of deliberately restricting the flow of natural gas through the pipeline from Texas creating an artificial shortage which caused prices to go up ten-fold.
President Clinton ordered an end to speculation in energy prices in California, which bit into the profits of El Paso, Reliant, Enron and Dynegy.
Between them the four companies gave $3.5m to Mr Bush and the Republicans. Three days after his inauguration Mr Bush swept away Mr Clinton’s anti-speculation orders.
Profits for these four power traders are now up $220m in the first quarter.
And protection against pollution is set to weaken further, the BBC’s Newsnight programme has discovered that deep in Mr Bush’s new budget, the million-dollar fund for civil enforcement to deter pollution will be axed.
In the future law enforcement will be left to locals.
The operative word for oil companies was bonanza. It was the lawless Wild West all over again. And I’m not so sure they’re ready to settle down and behave even now.
You know President George W. Bushâ€™s ratings are in the toilet when he starts bashing oil companies in the name of protecting what he repeatedly called â€œour consumers,â€ as he did yesterday.
And you know the Party in Powerâ€”just back from getting an earful from angry constituents about rising gasoline pricesâ€”is shaking in its shoes at the prospect of tomorrowâ€™s (April 27) profit announcement by ExxonMobil.
So the president did what a floundering politician does: he tried to change the subject.
O’Donnell goes on to document that the energy industry helped create the fix we’re in now. For example,
In declaring that part of the problem is that we havenâ€™t built new refineries in the U.S. in decades, the president is being simply disingenuous. As he well knows from his days in the business, the big oil companies decided for economic reasons that it was more cost-effective to expand existing refineries than build new ones. In fact, they have managed those expansions to avoid a gasoline glut that could lead to lower prices.
Can’t have lower prices, can we? My gracious.
And then there’s the problem of Mr. Bush’s “do” deficit. From an editorial in today’s New York Times:
During his State of the Union speech last January, President Bush correctly diagnosed America’s oil consumption as an addiction. Unfortunately, Mr. Bush is balking at taking the steps to cure the abuse. …
…The alternative energy technologies Mr. Bush emphasized â€” biofuels, hybrids, hydrogen power â€” are important and promising. What’s missing is a plan to get us from here to there. That means oil and gas prices will continue to rise, as America leads the world in draining the planet’s petroleum resources.
If Bush remains true to form, he’ll trot around for a while making speeches about an energy policy that will, somehow, never come to pass. If he can get prices down in the short term (and surely his oil industry buddies can arrange that) the “crisis” will be over and he can continue to do nothing.
Of course, linked to the energy crisis is the global warming crisis that conservatives refuse to acknowledge even as the polar ice caps are melting. At least this time there won’t be an iceberg to hit. Although it might be understandable to provide a short-term relaxing of environmental law to meet a short-term crisis — might, I say — paying the greenhouse gas piper must be part of whatever long-term policies we eventually adopt. Righties are still at the “you loony liberals are so loony” stage on that issue, however, so I’m not expecting bipartisan consensus anytime soon.
Oh, and since the great Northeast Power Blackout of 2003, has anyone heard that the Bushies have come up with a plan for maintaining the aging electricity grid? I haven’t, but maybe it got by me.
One other thing — remember the “know thy enemy” T-shirt discussed in the previous post? One of the bullet points is “If you see a fuel-efficient car, it’s probably being driven by a liberal. Run it off the road with your SUV.” Make of that what you will.