Republicans Have Handed Democrats a Winning Election Issue
By David Morris, originally published in Alternet, August 20, 2008
The Republicans keep handing the Democrats a winning election issue. And the Democrats keeping refusing to accept the gift. I hope the beginning of the formal election campaign knocks some sense into them.
The gift is the Republicans’ continued opposition to extending renewable energy incentives. Eight times since the fall of 2007, a Republican-threatened filibuster has thwarted a vote on extending these incentives. They will expire at the end of this year — and with that expiration, many believe the solar and wind industries will come to a grinding halt.
The GOP is holding the renewable energy industry hostage to its demand that Congress not reduce the existing subsidies to oil companies, hedge fund managers and foreign corporations. It is a bizarre linkage, but so far the Republicans are getting away with it.
Indeed, it is the Democrats who are on the defensive on the energy issue. Even a cursory perusal of the media shows that Republicans have succeeded in putting the focus on offshore drilling. Democrats have reacted by arguing that this strategy would supply too little additional oil much too late to have any significant impact. They’re right, but their argument doesn’t resonate to an American public that wants the government to do something, anything, about oil prices, and for them offshore drilling at least is a concrete supply-side proposal.
Democrats need to shift the focus to renewable energy, a supply-side strategy that holds much greater promise both in the short term and in the long term — and one that is wildly popular. By most polls, more than 80 percent of Americans support government incentives for renewable energy.
On renewable energy, the Democrats have a clear advantage in this presidential election. John McCain, the GOP’s presidential standard-bearer, has consistently opposed government support for renewable energy. Several times he has voted against extending renewable energy incentives. Sometimes he simply fails to show up for a vote. But even then, he is clear on how he would have voted. In one instance, when he failed to show up for a vote, the New York Times reported, “Aides to Mr. McCain said that he would have sided with the Republican leaders and that his vote was not needed.”
McCain’s justification for opposing renewable energy incentives at times appears to be a philosophical position. As he responded to one reporter’s question, “I’m not one who believes that we need to subsidize things. The wind industry is doing fine, the solar industry is doing fine.”
Yet his is a philosophy that is applied in an almost bizarrely inconsistent manner. For example, he vigorously supports nuclear energy and oil, two of our most highly subsidized fuels. Indeed, he joined his Republican brethren in fighting Democratic efforts to simply reduce existing subsidies to the wildly profitable oil industry. Can it be that renewable energy is the only type of energy McCain believes does not deserve government support?
Changing the Debate
How can Democrats shift the spotlight to renewable energy? By forcing Republicans to actually filibuster votes on the issue. This comment deserves a brief digression into Politics 101, for I’m certain that when Americans read in the news that the Democrats could not muster enough votes to stop a Republican filibuster, they believe the Republicans actually did filibuster. They didn’t. They simply threatened to filibuster. As one blogger describes such a threat, “It’s nothing more than a finger in a pocket pretending to be a gun.”
Emboldened by the reticence of the Democratic Party to call their bluff, Republicans have increased the use of the threatened filibuster to unprecedented levels. In this Congressional term, the GOP is on pace to obstruct three times more legislation with this technique than the average for the last decade.
Step one to winning this election is to force the Republicans to really filibuster if they want to delay a legislative vote. A real filibuster is when minority members have to stand on their feet for hours or days, even weeks, talking nonstop with no breaks. Picture a hoarse, disheveled Jimmy Stewart on the floor of Congress talking in the wee hours of the morning in the marvelous 1939 movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” That’s a filibuster. The Senate has not had a real drawn-out filibuster in more than 40 years.
If Republicans were forced to actually filibuster, the nation would witness the first 24/7 filibuster in an age of 24/7 news coverage. Within hours, renewable energy, and the Republicans’ feeble explanations of why they are willing to cut off its life support system, would move onto center stage of this campaign.
When it comes to renewable energy, the Democrats have another advantage. On this issue it is Republicans, not Democrats, who will have to explain their anti-business position. Renewable energy is no longer a cottage industry; it is one of the most rapidly growing sectors in American and global economies. This year in the United States alone, perhaps $10 billion will be invested in wind energy and more than $3 billion in solar energy.
The business community has expressed its dissatisfaction over the GOP’s strategy. Earlier this year, several hundred corporate heads signed a petition to the Republicans to stop their obstructionism on this issue.
With the spotlight on renewable energy, the Democrats then must explain to the American people how an expansion in renewable electricity with a reduction in oil consumption would come about, as I’ve explained previously. The key is to electrify the transportation system. Since less than 2 percent of our electricity is generated with oil, a mile driven on electricity is virtually an oil-free mile. The technological foundation for this transition is already in place. More than a million hybrid electric vehicles are on the road today. Hybrids are best-sellers. Add a few more batteries and a socket to the hybrid, and one has a car (or truck) that can run primarily on electricity.
Democrats could justify an electrified transportation system on the basis of national security or job creation, but I believe their strongest argument would be to appeal to our pocketbooks. Driving a mile on electricity costs only 3 cents, while driving a mile on gasoline can cost 15 cents.
Although Toyota and Honda have led the way with their hybrids, Democrats can and should ask the American car companies, Ford and GM, to give them their prototype plug-in hybrids for the Denver convention. Ford’s Escape plug-in hybrid comes with a flexible fueled engine, which means that while the car can be powered primarily by oil-free electricity, its backup engine can be powered by ethanol, itself a fuel that requires very little oil in the growing of the crop or the manufacture of the biofuel.
On electrified vehicles, as with renewables, Democrats and especially Barack Obama have a decided advantage. Obama has been a leading supporter of electrified vehicles, sponsoring nurturing legislation before most of his colleagues. Meanwhile, McCain has voted against incentives for electrified vehicles.
The energy bill stuck in Congress today contains a tax credit for electrified vehicles based on the distance the vehicle can travel solely on electricity. If enacted, the tax credit could make electrified vehicles competitive overnight.
Coming out firmly in favor of an electrified vehicle fleet also gives Democrats the opportunity to offer Americans a much more sound and enduring strategy for getting off oil.
Consider Obama’s declared intention to have 1 million plug-in hybrid electric vehicles on the road by 2015. The media dutifully reported his announcement but regrettably didn’t compare it to the Republicans’ proposal for offshore drilling. The comparison is instructive.
If we reach Obama’s target, a goal I firmly believe we could actually exceed by almost tenfold with an accelerated effort, we would displace more oil than would be supplied by offshore drilling by 2025, according to the Energy Information Administration. And if we produce only 2 million plug-in hybrids or all-electric vehicles by 2015, we would displace more oil than the EIA estimates new offshore wells would supply at peak production in 2030.
With their continued obstructionism to renewable energy incentives, the Republicans have primed the pump. When Congress returns from recess, the Democrats’ first order of business should be to step on the gas and call the Republicans’ bluff. When the Republicans threaten to filibuster, force them to filibuster. Force them to explain to the American people, for days on end, why they are embracing a strategy that could stall the growth of the U.S. renewable energy industry and condemn us to an ever-growing addiction to oil.
David Morris is vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, based in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.
About ILSR: The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a nonprofit organization founded in 1974 to advance sustainable, equitable, and community-centered economic development through research and educational activities and technical assistance. More at http://www.ilsr.org