That’s because the day before that ad went up, McCain offered an energy plan that called, among other things, for a repeal of the federal moratorium on off-shore drilling—a reversal of his previous position on the subject. It’s an idea that big oil companies eager to gain access to new potential reserves have backed for years and that had emerged over the preceding weeks as a cause célèbre for conservative activists and bloggers.
For now, at least, his support for off-shore drilling has papered over the divide on environmental issues between the party and its candidate.
It’s also inspired hope among the “rightroots,” the undersized kid brother of the left’s far more robust political Web presence, that this could be the moment and the issue that catalyze the emergence of online conservatism as a force in its own right.
"The left has been blocking domestic energy production for decades (drilling, refineries, nuclear, etc), so Newt Gingrich's ‘Drill here. Drill now. Pay less’ message tapped into a very simple frustration around which the right could rally,” said Jon Henke, a strategic manager of New Media Strategies and co-founder of The Next Right in an e-mail. “When you can tell a story about a unifying grievance, you can galvanize people online.”
The unifying grievance, of course, is the sharp rise in gas prices, and the unifying cause came into being on May 20, when American Solutions, the 527 started by Newt Gingrich, posted a petition that called for increased drilling as a way of lowering gas prices. “We… the undersigned citizens of the United States, petition the U.S. Congress to act immediately to lower gasoline prices (and diesel and other fuel prices) by authorizing the exploration of proven energy reserves to reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources from unstable countries,” it declared.
Within a week, the Web traffic for American Solutions skyrocketed, even beating out MoveOn.org for a couple of days, which led blogger Soren Dayton, who used to work for McCain, to ask, “Is Drill Now the conservative MoveOn?” (The liberal Web behemoth—with over three million members and a proven ability to generate massive amounts of small donor cash quickly—started as a petition to “move on” from Clinton’s impeachment.)
On June 12, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) started circulating a petition specifically for House members that stated, “I will vote to increase U.S. oil production to lower gas prices for Americans.” Almost 200 members—including five Democrats—have signed on.
Those legislators surely have in mind the more than 1.2 million people who have signed the American Solutions petition—almost a million of whom did so before McCain announced his new support for off-short drilling on June 16.
“Tomorrow I’ll call for lifting the federal moratorium for states that choose to permit exploration,” McCain said at a press conference announcing his new energy policies. “I think that this and perhaps providing additional incentives for states to permit exploration off their coasts would be very helpful in the short term in resolving our energy crisis.”
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, McCain’s top economic advisor, acknowledged the next day that increased drilling would have no immediate effect on prices, but argued that “There is an important element in signaling to world oil markets that we are serious." The campaign has also folded its discussion of drillng into a broader energy plan that also calls for building 45 new nuclear power plants and establishing a cap-and-trade program to control and reduce carbon emissions.
A 2007 report by the federal Energy Information Agency cast doubt on whether increased drilling’s ability would have any impact on market prices and noted that it would take ending the moratorium five years before it resulted in new oil production. And even if extracted in full, the untapped reserves are expected to amount to just a drop in the bucket of international supply: “Because oil prices are determined on the international market, however, any impact on average wellhead prices is expected to be insignificant.”
However incremental the economic benefits might prove, the political payoff has been immediate, and explosive. “The Drill Here Drill Now mantra that Newt came up with rapidly accelerated everyone coming together on the issue,” said Erick Erickson, who runs redstate.org, an influential conservative blog.
Erickson, like almost every conservative blogger Politico spoke with, went out of his way to stress that drilling was just one component of a conservative approach to energy. “For the first time in a while, it’s an issue that’s rallying all parts of the right.”
Several bloggers acknowledged the swing in support came as something of a surprise. “It’s taken on a life of its own. It is really a case where conservatives have an amazing opportunity,” said Matt Lewis, a blogger at the conservative hub townhall.com. “We’re right on the issue, and it’s popular with the American people.”
Despite the groundswell of support, McCain’s new stance on drilling was widely considered a political risk, especially in coastal areas, where drilling has long been the third rail of environmental politics.
The next day, President Bush echoed McCain’s opposition to the ban, even as the candidate distanced himself from the president’s position on energy exploration in the Alaskan National Wildlife refuge.
As the price at the pump has moved past $4 a gallon, some observers now believe that Americans are reconsidering their long-held opposition to expanded off-shore drilling. Supporters pointed to a recent Gallup poll that reported 57 percent of Americans would support drilling off the coasts and in wilderness areas if it helped bring down prices. It was the first time Gallup had asked the question.
However, national surveys can underestimate the backlash when specific locations are named. A Gallup poll in March revealed that support for drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife refuge, while up since 2002, was stuck at 42 percent. It’s also unclear what the political impact will be in the costal states, including Florida, most likely to be impacted by McCain’s proposal. (Republican Governor Charlie Crist has also recently endorsed ending the moratorium.)
Democrats remain dubious about the political appeal of off-shore drilling, which has long been favored by petroleum giants like ExxonMobil eager to gain access to new potential reserves. “When you look at who voters are blaming for high oil prices, they’re looking at oil company executives,” said Jeff Navin, a Democratic political consultant and Managing Director of American Environics Strategies, which does polling and consulting on energy and environmental issues. “Voters have a sense that Republicans and oil executives are pretty tight.”
And last Thursday, Arnold Schwarzenegger—the new Republican ur-maverick—told a crowd, “anyone who tells you this would bring down gas prices any time soon is blowing smoke."
But the McCain camp clearly sees the issue as a political winner, and last Friday released a new ad focused on “energy security” that called for domestic drilling, among other methods, as a way o bring down gas prices. While his previous energy and environment ad stressed bucolic scenes, this one featured an oil well flashing in the background.
At a moment when many on the right feel as if their Internet infrastructure is still in beta testing, the organizers of Drill Here, Drill Now plan to ask their signatories to lobby their congressmen after the Fourth of July recess, and hope to obtain three million signatories.
Some conservatives, though, are still skeptical that conservative leaders grasp how to use the Web for activism, especially from the bottom up.
“If this were an issue that the left wanted to lobby for, they would surely be working as a team to ensure that it was a sell on all fronts,” said Eric Odom, New Media Coordinator of the conservative Sam Adams Alliance, which is based in Chicago and focuses on transparency and grassroots conservative organizing. “There is a level of arrogance in D.C., especially on the right, that asserts the idea that rightroots bloggers across the country should drop everything we're doing and jump on the GOP federal election bandwagon.”
In early May, Patrick Ruffini—who ran the Web operation for Bush-Cheney 2004 and worked for Giuliani this past cycle—announced that he would be starting a group blog called The Next Right with a combination of conservative activists and Republican operatives. “It’s no secret that the right operates at a severe disadvantage to the left when it comes to building online political infrastructure,” he wrote. “People point to ActBlue and Obama’s massive fundraising advantage, but the problem cuts deeper: netroots activists on the left have built critical mass around an idea that regular people on the Internet can get their hands dirty and remix Democratic politics.”
“Liberals online have done real organizing in coalitions and won elections,” said Matt Stoller, a liberal blogger who started OpenLeft.com. “The rightroots is pretty much a silly mirage.”
With McCain down in the polls and Republican power weakened, many activists see a sort of freedom in opposition.
“A lot changed in January 2007 when Democrats took control of Congress,” said Robert Bluey, who runs The Foundry, the rapid-response policy blog of The Heritage Foundation. “Up until that point, the Republicans controlled both branches … and basically we [activists and the government] were in agreement” with national policy.
Lewis noted that Republican control of the government had weakened the bite of those who wanted to be insurgent activists. “When a party’s in power you make compromises,” he said. “Never again are they going to be Republican bloggers, they’re going to be conservative bloggers.”
While McCain still opposes opening up Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, Erickson and other bloggers are hoping to change that: “I think you can bet on conservatives aggressively pushing John McCain to change his mind on ANWR.”