Obama beats McCain on energy

Ever since John McCain first flip-flopped on off-shore drilling, he and his supporters have been trying to frame the climate debate in terms of energy independence. They've done a pretty remarkable job; their petro-populism may sound like vapid Big Oil cheerleading to diehard greens, but it’s played well with middle America and has forced Democrats firmly onto the back foot. At last night’s presidential debate, though, the momentum shifted.

John McCain started off by hitting a bum note, answering a question about the financial crisis by talking about domestic drilling. "I have a plan to fix this problem, and it's got to do with energy independence," he said. "We've got to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don't like us very much.” It was an odd note to strike: few Americans believe that oil imports are the root cause of the economic meltdown, so McCain’s awkward segue risked making him seem out of touch and oil-obsessed.

And the Republican candidate continued to flounder when asked directly about his plans to tackle climate change. “What's the best way of fixing it? Nuclear power,” he said, perhaps a little too cavalierly. “Build a whole bunch of them! Create millions of new jobs!” McCain went on to mock Obama's reservations about nuclear power: “Senator Obama says that it has to be ‘safe’ or ‘disposable’ or something like that.” The trouble is that rightly or wrongly, most Americans are queasy about nukes; few voters are as ready as McCain to scoff at the idea that nuclear energy needs to be “safe”.

On top of that, McCain’s math doesn’t pass muster. Rather than millions of new jobs, the 45 new nuclear plants he’s proposed would create just 35,000 permanent new jobs. (Another 190,000 temporary jobs would be created during the construction process.) Worse, his new nukes would do little to solve the climate crisis: scientists have calculated that it would take almost 5,000 new nuclear plants merely to hold global carbon emissions at their current levels, so McCain’s 45 plants would be merely a drop in the ocean.

In response, Obama blasted McCain’s lack of vision, criticizing his repeated votes against alternative fuels and driving home the point - which can’t be made often enough - that America simply doesn’t have the oil reserves to drill her way out of the current energy crisis. Instead, Obama promised a transformative JFK-style moon-shot, saying he’d make energy his administration’s top priority and pour resources into a broad-based energy platform encompassing everything from oil and nuclear to solar, wind, geothermal and energy efficiency.

Judging by the insta-polling and focus group responses, Obama’s message hit home. That could play an important role in shaping the energy debate in the last few weeks of the 2008 presidential race: Democrats now know that it’s perfectly possible to score points against Republicans on energy policy; and the McCain camp know they’re going to need more than just another chorus of “drill, baby, drill” if they want to claw their way back into contention.


He was spot on w/ the air pressure in the tires deal...that will fix everything!