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McCain Stands To Benefit From The Energy Issue

For the last several weeks, the focus of political debate has been on the energy issue. As I've written, $4-a-gallon gasoline has changed public opinion, which now favors oil drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have been struggling, successfully so far, to prevent votes on such drilling, but that's unpopular with the public. House Republicans this past week have been taking to the House floor--which is open to the public during business hours during the congressional recess--and demanding a vote on drilling now. I think it's undignified for members to speak in this way on the House floor, which should be reserved for official sessions; I didn't like it when Democrats, then in the minority, went out and delivered speeches on the Capitol steps, and I like this even less. But politicians are willing to do undignified things if it helps them win votes. And this does.

Republicans generally and John McCain in particular have benefited from this iteration of the energy issue, even though McCain still opposes drilling in the ANWR and only recently switched to back offshore drilling. But beneath the surface debate, McCain may be doing better on domestic issues generally than most observers have been thinking. At least there's evidence for this in these findings from pollster Scott Rasmussen. Here are the numbers showing the percentage of voters favoring each candidate on the following issues:

On energy, Rasmussen has released new numbers that suggest Obama's doing worse than this. They show that 65 percent of voters believe the priority on energy should be on finding new sources of energy, while only 28 percent put a priority on reducing current energy usage. Some 67 percent believe McCain's priority is new energy sources, while only 12 percent believe it's reducing current energy usage. In contrast, 55 percent believe Obama's priority is reducing current energy usage, while 29 percent believe it's finding new energy sources. The tire gauge is clearly causing Obama some trouble.

Note that these responses come when the race between the candidates is virtually even in Rasmussen tracking. They suggest that none of the domestic issues that traditionally have helped Democratic candidates have much leverage, at least as they are framed now, to improve Obama's showing against McCain. The old political rules that economic distress moves voters toward Democrats and that a bad economy hurts the party in the White House don't seem to be operating, at least not very strongly. My working hypothesis is that McCain's celebrity ad suggesting that Obama is an empty suit is undermining Obama's attempt to get the traditional Democratic advantage on these issues.

And will it help the Obama campaign if voters get a better idea of his specific views on these issues? McCain has been hammering him on tax increases, and it's hard to explain in a sentence how Obama's proposal for higher taxes on high earners will stimulate a slow-growth economy. McCain has been talking about new energy sources, and it's hard to explain how Obama's proposal for a windfall tax on oil companies and rebates to middle and low earners will produce more energy. Redistributive economics is designed to distribute current economic production, not to increase it.

There's another domestic issue that may come to the fore in the campaign, and it's raised by an opinion article by George McGovern in today's Wall Street Journal. The issue is the card check bill, which would dispense with secret-ballot union representation elections and would require employers to engage in collective bargaining with a union that obtains signatures on cards from a majority of employees. This is strongly backed by the AFL-CIO and other unions, which hope it would result in a huge increase in union membership (and dues income for the unons). It passed the Democratic House on pretty much a party-line vote but was stymied in the Senate for failure to get 60 votes. Barack Obama is for it; John McCain says he would veto it. It could become law if Democrats, as expected, hold the House and if, as is possible but by no means certain, they gain six or seven seats in the Senate. Here's an excerpt from McGovern's article:

To my friends supporting EFCA I say this: We cannot be a party that strips working Americans of the right to a secret-ballot election. We are the party that has always defended the rights of the working class. To fail to ensure the right to vote free of intimidation and coercion from all sides would be a betrayal of what we have always championed.

Some of the most respected Democratic members of Congress--including Reps. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, George Miller and Pete Stark of California, and Barney Frank of Massachusetts--have advised that workers in developing countries such as Mexico insist on the secret ballot when voting as to whether or not their workplaces should have a union. We should have no less for employees in our country.

Polls have shown the card check bill to be massively unpopular. By a very wide margin, voters favor secret ballots in union elections. It seems to me this is a potential vote winner for McCain and the Republicans. And a vote loser for Democrats from states like McGovern's native South Dakota. McGovern voted against repeal of Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, which allows state right-to-work laws--the first piece of Great Society legislation to be defeated in 1965. McGovern was undoubtedly aware that many in South Dakota thought repeal of its right-to-work law would hurt the state's economy. I suspect that if card check were to come before a Democratic Senate, having passed the Democratic House and with the support of a President Obama, there would be immense home-state pressure on Democratic senators from states like Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Virginia to vote against it. Nonetheless, it seems to me a valid campaign issue.

Speaking of George McGovern, let me get something off my chest. A number of Democratic senators have attacked John McCain for his service in the Vietnam War, notably Jay Rockefeller, who said: "McCain was a fighter pilot who dropped laser-guided missiles from 35,000 feet. He was long gone when they hit. What happened when they [the missiles] get to the ground? He doesn't know. You have to care about the lives of people." Rockefeller was wrong on his facts and later apologized, but the implication remains that there is something immoral about being a bomber pilot. Does that apply to the Democratic Party's 1972 presidential nominee, George McGovern, who served as a bomber pilot in World War II? Does it apply to the Democratic Party's 1988 vice presidential nominee, the late Lloyd Bentsen, who also served as a bomber pilot in World War II? This was extremely hazardous duty, and I have long admired McGovern and Bentsen for, among other things, their military service.

By Michael Barone