- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2000

Once in a while, unexpectedly, a presidential campaign gets sidetracked into a historic debate on a vital issue that could change our future. The oil issue presents Gov. George W. Bush with just such an opportunity. So far, this campaign will be remembered by history, if at all, for the issues of: a reporter being called a "rectal aperture," an ad with the word "rats" in it, the color of the candidates' suits and shirts, a union lullaby, a candidate's mother-in-law and his dog, and a couple of public smooches.
But the rising public anxiety over fuel costs, and the media's intense reporting of it, gives Mr. Bush a chance to engage Vice President Al Gore in a vital debate over both long-term energy policy and a first-ever national debate between responsible environmentalism and paganistic environmental fanaticism. In the process of such debates, the two candidates' temperaments and qualities of judgment are likely to be contrasted to the detriment of the vice president.
But so far, George Bush and Richard Cheney have only taken a few well entitled shots at Mr. Gore's hypocrisy, flip-flops and pandering, while defending the Strategic Petroleum Reserve's legislated purpose as a stopgap during war or embargo. These charges are fully justified and have gained the vigorous head-nodding of already-committed Bush voters, but they neither engage the central issues, nor gain many new voters.
Mr. Bush is understandably reluctant to engage Mr. Gore on issues that will force him into an environmental debate against "Mr. Environment." Mr. Bush is also, apparently, defensive about his and running mate Richard B. Cheney's prior work in the "Big Oil" business. And, with polls currently suggesting an even race, Team Bush is exercising every candidate's risk-averse instinct against taking on controversial topics six weeks before the election.
The Bush strategy is to jab and feint and charm, and hope to win on points. It may work. But my sense is that absent a new, large, grabbing public issue, in a campaign dominated by personalities and trivialities, Mr. Gore's peace and prosperity incumbent advantage is likely to give him the victory on close points.
But Mr. Bush would be well advised to follow a French general's advice to his officers: "L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace" (always audacious.) Be assured, having spent a lifetime in practical politics, I am not recommending suicide. I am recommending victory. Millions of American voters are hesitating to pull the lever for Mr. Bush because they wonder whether he is sufficiently serious of purpose. Is he just running to vindicate his dad's loss? Why does he want to be president? To be considered serious, one must be serious. Just as importantly, one must be seen to be serious. And the oil issue provides just such a double opportunity to bring over the doubters.
A candidate can talk and talk about serious matters, but if the public is not paying attention, it doesn't help. Well, the public and the media are paying attention to oil. Mr. Bush should go be serious where the public is looking. There is surely some risk in taking on Mr. Gore over long-term energy and environmental policy, but the payoff is huge and the risk, while more than de minimis, is worth the hunt.
First off, Messrs. Bush and Cheney should stop being defensive about their experience in the Big Oil business. They should be proud of it. The public may not like Big Oil or Big Business generally, but they have seen what happens when the government gets into the market place and they want no part of it. Mr. Bush should call for an extra televised debate with Mr. Gore just on the topic of oil and energy. Mr. Bush knows the subject as a professional. All Mr. Gore knows is a few foolish slogans. The public and the media want long-term solutions, not short-term slogans. Mr. Bush's stature can only be enhanced by such a debate.
The central issue of oil supply and prices is also one about which Mr. Gore should be defensive. The crux of the matter is easily understood. Either demand must be reduced by higher energy prices and taxes, or supply must be increased by environmentally careful exploration and practical conservation. The Gore policy, both as reflected over his last eight years in government and in his book, "Earth In the Balance," is to reduce demand which means to raise prices permanently. Americans can see the Gore policy in full execution by watching Europeans demonstrate over $5 a gallon gas. Mr. Gore has tried to camouflage the inevitable result of his policy by talking with invincible economic ignorance about government subsidies for economically impractical alternatives to oil. Mr. Bush easily should be able to remind the public of the last such effort by President Jimmy Carter. Once this debate is fully engaged by the media, Mr. Gore's environmental fanaticism displayed in his book will finally get the media attention that could be so destructive to his candidacy.
While a certain amount of practical politics and poll-gazing is required in any successful electoral campaign, ultimately, great presidencies begin with a candidate's trusting in and guiding the public wisdom on the big issues of his time. This is the moment and the issue with which Mr. Bush should stride to the center of American politics.
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