- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 15, 2004

It’s all about the oil price, stupid.

As petroleum prices inch forward, so does John Kerry’s advantage in poll numbers — nationally and in key battleground states such as Michigan. Not only are consumers upset at the prospect of gasoline prices of more than $2 a gallon, but they may see high oil prices as evidence President Bush’s effort to rewrite Middle East history is failing. And Mr. Bush hasn’t been doing much to persuade voters he has a grip on it.

Not that Mr. Kerry offers a very persuasive formula. Indeed, his platform seems to consist of two main strands: a radical increase in corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards and a shift to what Mr. Kerry likes to call “renewable” energy, prominently including wind and solar power. But the first is a recipe for further job losses in industrial states. The latter offers no meaningful relief from hydrocarbon dependence.

Indeed, Mr. Kerry’s Massachusetts neighbors, with no dissent from Mr. Kerry himself, have vigorously opposed a giant windmill farm off the shores of Nantucket. Just how unserious is the Kerry vision of “energy independence” was even more clearly revealed last week when the Democratic candidate, in a bid for Nevada’s electoral votes, reversed his own prior position and pledged to veto a nuclear waste site in the Nevada desert. This would effectively block the one serious current alternative to energy from hydrocarbon sources: nuclear power.

Not that George Bush has exactly been a model of clear thinking. He too promises “energy independence” — as if an America whose prosperity is built on hydrocarbons could somehow insulate itself from the world oil market.

Mr. Bush’s long-stalled energy plan does move in the direction of supply-side incentives, but it also offers an unfortunate grab bag of tax breaks, subsidies and other items easily painted as a giveaway to the supposedly greedy energy companies. The bill’s provision to open a tiny bit of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, besides enraging environmentalists, would do little to boost near-term oil and gas supplies.

And Mr. Bush’s refusal to directly challenge conventional wisdoms about global warming, among other things, far from insulating him from environmental criticism, has only led the environmental establishment — much of which has benefited from contributions from Teresa Heinz Kerry’s foundations, as Washington’s Capital Research Center has pointed out — to redouble its shrill criticisms.

Some in Republican ranks are pressing the panic button, calling on Mr. Bush to release oil from the National Petroleum Reserve, or at least stop adding to it. But Bush has insisted the NPR should be tapped only in a true emergency, not as a means of regulating the price. In addition to looking panicky, this might not much affect the huge international oil market, absent a change in underlying supply and demand. When Bill Clinton released oil to help his 1986 re-election, prices barely budged.

A president’s chief asset in such a situation is the bully pulpit, and Mr. Bush should use it. The administration is jaw-boning the main oil-producing countries, including Russia, to increase supply to meet demand for such growing economies as the United States and China. But voters need to understand John Kerry’s pledge that not one more American soldier should have to die for oil is not only a cheap shot but is driven by a dangerously isolationist notion: that America can prosper in a global economy without participating in its single most important tradable commodity.

American GIs are not dying because of oil or oil company profits; they are dying because the world trading system and America’s national security are threatened by forces of disorder that would only be compounded by the misery brought on by such energy isolationism. It is precisely this disorder that lies behind the current spike in oil prices.

One can doubt the wisdom of pre-emptive efforts to impose a new order on unwilling countries, but neither is it very convincing to sit back and watch critical regions fall apart under the weight of tyranny, fanaticism and terrorism — while we console ourselves with illusions of windmill-powered prosperity.

What was attacked on September 11, 2001, after all, was the World Trade Center, the very symbol of the idea trade, freedom and U.S. engagement in the world go together. Americans can be trusted to understand that energy prices wax and wane — as long as the fluctuations occur within a framework of a principled, coherent foreign and domestic policy that offers a firm foundation for future growth.

Tom Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

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