Like it or not, our national crisis has created a new political order.
On Sept. 10, the Democratic Party was clearly in control of the national (and, by extension, the state and local) agenda. Opinion polls showed the president's approval rating dipping below 50 percent. A substantial majority of Americans were unconvinced that there was an energy crisis, or that we needed a missile shield, or that the Republican administration knew what they were doing.
W. and the gang were pretty hopeless as managers of a peaceful, self-absorbed country -- but, three weeks later, they seem to be doing fine in wartime. The president's approval rating is in the stratosphere, and congressional Democrats, like a bunch of scruffy runaway dogs slinking home after an afternoon chasing the neighborhood cats, have fallen obediently in line behind their leader.
Right now, whatever the president wants, the president gets. Drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve? Build a missile defense system? Vastly expand exploration and drilling throughout the unspoiled public lands of the American West? No problemo!!
But while W.'s political allies may be quietly rejoicing at the new political reality, Bush might benefit by looking at things a little differently. Let's look at our national energy policy, for example. Since the 1950s, Colorado's economy has been powerfully impacted by a persistent national fantasy -- that of energy autarky (a fancy word for self-sufficiency).
Virtually every administration since the late '50s has pretended that, as a matter of national security, we ought to rely primarily -- even exclusively -- upon local energy sources.
In pursuit of this chimerical goal, the feds subsidized uranium mining in the '50s, and oil shale in the '70s and '80s. Both industries collapsed, leaving behind assorted environmental/public health/social and economic problems.
Now the Bush administration seems ready to offer substantial subsidies to their pals in the oil business, handing over environmentally sensitive areas throughout Colorado and the West for accelerated exploration/drilling/production.
We're being told, once again, that these efforts are essential to national security; after all, if the Arabs turn off the oil spigot, we need to be able to rely upon our own resources. It seems absolutely logical, but it's not, even in these dramatically more perilous times. To begin with, we need to realize that we import 56 percent of the oil that we consume, much of which is used for transportation. The best that we can do with new production from public lands in the West and Alaska would be to reduce that number only by 3 to 5 percent. So, hello? We'll still be importing 50 percent of our oil.
No matter what, a cutoff of Middle Eastern oil would cripple our economy beyond imagining.
Clearly, we could achieve energy autarky. And just as clearly, it would be at enormous cost. We'd have to adopt the most objectionable features of the "energy security" plans favored by the crazies of both left and right. Start with massively expanded production from public lands, not to mention drilling offshore in Florida and California (sorry, all you surfers and beachcombers and fish eaters -- get used to a little oil!). Then, throw away those fat, comfortable SUVs and shoehorn yourselves into little Euroboxes that get 60 mpg.
Turn down the heat, turn down the AC, and be ready for the doubtful joys of public transportation -- slow, inconvenient and crowded. Have fun paying $4.50 a gallon for gas, but you'll be glad to know that we don't have to worry about the rest of the world any more.
Well, as Mobil pointed out in one of their well-timed periodic "think ads" in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, world petroleum reserves have doubled since 1973. Supply isn't the problem; as our newly multilateral president is finding out, it's all politics.
Perhaps his only choice is to pursue a cautious, accomodationist policy that will preserve, however uneasily, our global economy. He really doesn't need to toss the oil industry a bone, not with 90 percent approval ratings. In fact, having assembled a global coalition against terrorism, he could sponsor a kind of Marshall Plan for the Middle East, and at the same time move aggressively to protect the environment.
And here in Colorado, we'd avoid another fantasy-driven assault on our state, perennially a candidate to be America's energy colony. Instead, we'd only have to worry about the impact of the present crisis on our local defense establishments, or on the high-tech industry, or on the tourist industry, or on the city sales tax, or ... Yup, nothing like autarky.