Vet cards and oil canards

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Generally speaking, a politician should try to be innocent of the charges he levels against opponents. So maybe it’s a sign of Democratic U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards’ desperation that he and his cohorts have done away with this nicety in their attempts to head off challenger Van Taylor. At this early point in election 2006, Mr. Taylor — a 33-year-old Iraq veteran and first-time office-seeker — looks to be the only Republican Iraq veteran with a strong chance of being elected to Congress this fall.

Mr. Edwards and friends have spent the last two months trying to paint Mr. Taylor as an oil profiteer because his disclosure statements reveal that he owns at least $11 million in ExxonMobil stock, much of it inherited. Will that kind of class-warfare rhetoric and resentment work in Texas? Beyond the obvious oil-country doubts, there’s the inconvenient fact that Mr. Edwards and his supporters arguably are in greater cahoots with ExxonMobil and other Big Oil players than Mr. Taylor. Mr. Edwards has taken $48,000 in energy contributions this cycle according to the Center for Responsive Politics — including $4,000 from ExxonMobil’s political-action committee. Mr. Taylor, by contrast, hasn’t taken a dime from the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, nor from any special interests in energy.

Mr. Edwards is in a tough spot this year, which might help explain things. His district includes President Bush’s Crawford, Tex., home and is currently the most heavily Republican in the country not already represented by a GOP lawmaker. He barely survived redistricting in 2004. Mr. Edwards is this year’s low-hanging fruit.

Add to these facts the sheer appeal of his challenger. Mr. Taylor was a captain in the Marine Corps, a Harvard M.B.A. and Waco businessman who was activated for Iraq from the reserves. There, he led missions behind enemy lines and helped rescue P.O.W. Jessica Lynch in 2003. He is running as a political outsider and solid conservative — and already has enjoyed fundraising help from Vice President Dick Cheney. It also couldn’t hurt that Mr. Taylor is a seventh-generation Texan.

This has provoked a strange response from Mr. Edwards. “Edwards Says Taylor Needs to Disclose to Voters How Much ExxonMobil Stock He Owns,” blared an April campaign press release. “Since voters are hurting every time they fill up their car or truck, they deserve to know how much Van Taylor is making as a result of ExxonMobil’s record breaking profits and high gas prices.” So Mr. Taylor strikes Mr. Edwards as vulnerable to gas-price resentment. We’ll see whether that works in the state that Big Oil calls home.

At least one ally has lent a hand to this unlikely stratagem. Last Monday, former Democratic Rep. Martin Frost — who lost to Republican Rep. Pete Sessions in 2004 after redistricting and still must feel raw — floated the charge that Mr. Taylor is “flawed” because of his ExxonMobil stock holdings. “Some people in Texas are starting to refer to him as Exxon Taylor,” Mr. Frost wrote on FoxNews.com. But the only person on record using this phrase is Mr. Frost.

“I’ve never heard that name in my whole life,” Mr. Taylor told The Washington Times in an interview last week. A LexisNexis search of Texas newspapers conducted by The Washington Times finds not a single reference before Mr. Frost’s article appeared. Since then, blogs have picked up the term. But they attribute it to Mr. Frost. Are the “people in Texas” who use this phrase limited to Mr. Frost and his unnamed friends?

For the record, Messrs. Edwards and Frost together have enjoyed $11,000 in ExxonMobil PAC contributions over the years. Mr. Edwards also took $4,000 from Entergy Corp., $1,000 from Chevron, $1,000 from Sunoco and tens of thousands more from lesser-known energy firms this cycle. If Mr. Edwards is serious about the “taint” of oil money, then clearly he should return his own.

Mr. Edwards could be forgiven for feeling unlucky: This is supposed to be the year of a Democratic resurgence. More to the point, the military veterans on the rise are supposed to be “Fighting Dems,” not Republicans like Mr. Taylor. Broadly speaking, they still could be: Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth, the double amputee seeking to replace Henry Hyde, is the clearest sign that at least some Democratic veterans competing for office this fall are serious contenders.

But the appeal of young veterans running for office after a difficult war transcends partisan boundaries — just like it did after World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Mr. Edwards looks to be an unlucky politician standing in the way of one promising member of the latest generation of rising military veterans. The rhetoric of class warfare can’t obscure that.

Brendan Conway is an editorial writer for The Washington Times and a 2006 Phillips Foundation journalism fellow.

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