According to a statewide survey released on July 30th, a slim majority of Californians now supports expanded oil drilling off our state's treasured coastline. Support for offshore drilling is even up six percent among the state's Democrats. In a land where offshore drilling has been a third-rail of politics for decades, this new surge in support for drilling is as sure a sign that Democrats are quickly losing ground to the vigorous GOP offensive to Drill! Drill! Drill! for more oil.
GOP political operatives, buoyed by their newfound success on the energy front, are digging in on this issue as their last best hope to defend vulnerable Congressional seats - not to mention the White House - in November. And their strategy is working. Democrats are losing ground in poll after poll and party leaders are scrambling to respond. They've yet to mount a successful counterattack, and the Republican's "Drill Here, Pay Less" mantra is getting louder and louder each day.
All of this is a rude awakening for progressives: we're losing. Bad. Democrats are getting trounced on the biggest election issue and quickly losing the most important political battle of the new century: energy.
How in the world did we get here?! Democrats have been pushing progressive solutions to our oil addiction for decades. Yet somehow Republicans are beating Democrats over the head with the record high oil prices they helped create with years of energy policy written in closed-door meetings with oil company lobbyists. Democrats have been on the right side of the energy issue, how can they suddenly be losing to a cynical push for more oil drilling?
The answer lies in a notion Democrats have always had a hard time accepting: American's don't always vote with the logical side of their brains. They vote with their guts. When Republicans chant, "Drill Here, Pay Less," it appeals to basic common sense. Energy prices are high, so the answer is more energy. The Republicans' argument is simple, concise. There's an easy connection from problem to solution.
The GOP is wrong, of course - the Department of Energy itself reports that "any impact [of new offshore drilling] on average [oil] prices is expected to be insignificant"- and at the logical level Americans are smart enough to know that more drilling does not translate to lasting relief. But "Drill Here, Pay Less" sounds pretty good right now, as evidenced by recent polling, and it taps into and reinforces commonly held misconceptions and biases.
What the Right is doing is jacking into the political equivalent of Americans' limbic system and getting an immediate, reflexive response. Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to get people to just listen to them long enough to make them understand they're right.
What do Democrats have to counter "Drill here, Pay Less?" I can already hear the response from Democratic leaders: "We've got plenty of good answers: Strategic Petroleum Reserve ... tire gauges ... efficient cars ... renewable energy ... hybrids ... biofuels ... windfall profit tax ..." and on and on. Of course, that's just the problem: Democrats have plenty of answers. But they don't have an answer.
While the Democrats' alternatives are clear on a logical level, they doesn't cut it because the power of reductive thinking is so seductive and strong. "Drill Here, Pay Less" is simple, powerful and compelling, and that plethora of Democratic policies offered in response just sounds like noise.
It gets even messier when Democrats do not offer a single, unified alternative and instead attack the faulty logic of "Drill Here, Pay Less," arguing that drilling will provide little benefit in the long term and no benefit in the short term. Americans simply respond, "yeah, but could it hurt?"
If Democrats start arguing on Republicans' terms - as they have come dangerously close to doing by talking about drilling in some areas while fighting drilling in more environmentally sensitive places - this debate will quickly become one between the party for lots of oil and lots of savings (GOP) and the party for some oil and less savings (Democrats). Democrats are further destined to lose if they become the party that's asking people to put aside their kitchen table issues to save sea otters or caribou at a time of record high energy prices and economic stagnation. One guess which party Americans choose on Election Day if those are the options...
So what will it take for Democrats to win the energy battle? A simple, concise, and intuitively compelling response to the Republican's "Drill Here, Pay Less" chant. Determining what that new mantra is should be the top priority for progressive political operatives, and Democratic party leaders, political candidates, and allied message machines need to unite around this new common sense mantra with as much fervor, unity and discipline as the Right has on drilling. And as they launch this new offensive, Democrats can't forget to frame this debate on their terms. Anything short of that, and we'll lose the energy battle, and maybe even the election with it.
It's time to get serious about a powerful alternative to "Drill Here, Pay Less." So what's it going to be?
[A special tip of the hat to Jim Barrett, Executive Director of Redefining Progress, for his contributions to the development of this post.]