Saturday, June 28, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama has the lead for the time being. But three sign posts point the way to a landslide for Republican John McCain in November — in the unlikely event the Arizona senator has the wit to heed them.

What figures to be by far the most important issue this fall is the skyrocketing price of energy and its deleterious effect on the broader economy and national security.

Now that Mr. McCain has flip-flopped on drilling off of our coasts, there is a substantial difference between him and Mr. Obama on the issue. Mr. McCain also supports building more nuclear power plants, which Mr. Obama opposes.

Opinion polls indicate a large majority now supports drilling for oil off our coasts and in Alaska. That majority is likely to expand and harden as gas prices rise this summer. But Mr. McCain can’t fully capitalize politically on this change in public attitude unless he completes his flip-flop, and consents to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Commentary magazine’s editor John Podhoretz fears Mr. McCain’s ego will prevent him from doing what is in his, and his country’s interest:

“So McCain 2 makes a big speech about offshore drilling and the need for it. Fine. But the message is muted and confused. Why? Because McCain 1 voted against oil exploration and field development in [ANWR] and McCain 2 doesn’t want to look like a flip-flopper by changing his stand on the matter. … In acting out of a combination of holer-than-thou piety and political pique, McCain 1 has made it all but impossible for McCain 2 to run with this issue and go on the offensive with Obama on a matter of central concern to the American people.”

I fear Mr. Podhoretz is correct. But few Americans would hold flip-flopping against Mr. McCain, because they’ve flip-flopped, too. Soccer moms were happy to genuflect to environmental pieties when gasoline was $2 a gallon. But now that they have to sell their firstborn to fill up their SUVs, their attitude has changed dramatically.

If Mr. McCain were to fly to ANWR and announce his change of heart there, the attendant publicity would make it clear to Americans the sharp difference between himself and Mr. Obama on the issue most important to their pocketbooks. He supports letting Floridians and Californians decide whether there should be drilling off their coasts. Why shouldn’t the same principle apply to Alaskans? A large majority favor drilling in ANWR.

The second sign post is Mr. Obama’s clumsy embrace of a Sept. 10 attitude toward the war on terror. The law enforcement approach toward fighting it is precisely what led to Sept. 11, 2001. Fortunately, national security is the one issue Mr. McCain knows something about. The danger for him here is that he’ll overemphasize it. The fact that we’re winning the war on terror makes most Americans less interested in it, and more focused on economic concerns. Voter anxiety about Mr. Obama’s fitness to be commander in chief is a strong subsidiary issue. But this election will be won or lost at the gas pump.

The third sign post was illuminated by the flap over receipt by the (now former) head of Mr. Obama’s vice-presidential selection committee and two prominent U.S. senators of below-market rate loans from Countrywide Financial, which Mr. Obama has charged is in large part responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis. One of those, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, is trying to push through Congress a bill that in effect would bail out Countrywide.

This glaring conflict of interest hasn’t attracted much attention from the news media, because for most journalists, a scandal isn’t really a scandal unless Republicans are involved. But it’s a tailor-made issue for Mr. McCain. He has often stupidly (see McCain-Feingold) but always ardently fought pork barrel spending and corruption. Congress has its lowest approval rating in the history of polling. Replacing the Washington way with the Chicago way is not an improvement. Mr. McCain is the best person to make that case. Americans are in a mood to hear it.

The sign posts also indicate who Mr. McCain should choose for his running mate. No Republican can better make the case for drilling than Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and no governor has fought harder against corruption, especially in her own party.

So go to ANWR, Mr. McCain. Embrace Sarah Palin there. You’ll have to eat some crow. But crow doesn’t taste so bad when it’s served on the White House china.

Jack Kelly, a syndicated columnist, is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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