Tom Oliphant and David Brooks Discuss President Bush’s Energy Plan
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GWEN IFILL: Now, some analysis about the politics of energy from Tom Oliphant of The Boston Globe and David Brooks of The Weekly Standard.
David, how important is this issue for this administration?
DAVID BROOKS: It’s quite important. Aside from just the bloodlines they go back, they care about this issue. It’s something they feel that our energy policy is like our highway system was before Eisenhower came in and Bush clearly wants this to be part of his legacy. It’s also important politically. As the piece pointed out, it’s not as salient as it was a couple months ago. I was in Nevada town meetings a few months ago and people were just transfixed with the idea of spending 30 bucks to fill up the tank.
But it still is the third most salient issue on people’s minds. 56 percent of Americans either believe we’re in an energy crisis or we could be in an energy crisis. And, as the Republicans will tell you, it affects the economy and it affects defense because if there’s one issue that defense analysts believe will lead to some sort of crisis in the world that will cause us to send our troops abroad, it’s oil in the Middle East.
GWEN IFILL: Tom, if people still do feel like maybe this energy crisis could come back as the president was hinting at today, has he had so much problem with his plan because people don’t like his solutions to the problem?
TOM OLIPHANT: No, not at all. He hasn’t… despite some of those votes on the Hill in the last couple of weeks, he hasn’t suffered some crushing defeat that indicates his approach is being rejected either by Congress or necessarily by the public, by the way. What I think is going on, however, is that there has been a problem in establishing a uniform definition of — let’s call it a problem instead of crisis — that people from all walks of life and all political persuasions can accept.
I think there’s where the administration has had more difficulty. And while I agree with David that the importance of this to both Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney is quite large, it’s interesting today that the town meeting exercise around the country is occurring without the president’s participation. As if they were sort of holding him back at this stage because I think they’re undertaking a long-term effort to revive interest in his approach.
GWEN IFILL: Why is the president… why do you think the president isn’t out there on the hustings on this subject right now?
DAVID BROOKS: I think there’s a practical issue. First of all he’s very disciplined. They’re into discipline, the Bush White House. This is his prescription drug plan week and then it’s his Europe week. He can only do one thing at a time. The second thing is Cheney has been heading up the energy initiative. It’s interesting where they’re going because they’re not… there are two dangers in energy policy. There is the Jimmy Carter danger, you’re hunkering down with the Carter again in the White House and you’re doom and gloom.
The other problem is the Richard Nixon danger, which is you’re saying if we don’t build a thousand nuclear plants in the next ten years there is going to be a crisis. Both of those are terrible. One of the things they’re going to is they’re going to Argonne, which is a national lab place. Norman Mineta is going to super conductor plants in Ohio. So they’re being upbeat, optimism. All technology can solve all our problems.
GWEN IFILL: But as long as you’re talking about the dangers of how you sell this issue, Dick Cheney’s danger was early on he called conservation a personal virtue. Have they pulled back on that one?
DAVID BROOKS: Quite a bit. I ran across a speech that Cheney gave in ’99 when he was still at Halliburton, and it was very much to the defensive oilman. They want our oil but they still hate us. It’s like that Jack Nicholson character when he was a Marine in the Tom Cruise movie. You need me on the wall but you can’t handle me on the wall. It was incredibly defensive. And that came out as part of their original proposal in the defense of this. Now they’re much more upbeat.
TOM OLIPHANT: If you go through this speech that Mrs. Cheney delivered on her husband’s behalf tonight in suburban Pittsburgh because of his voice problem, it’s as if this is a different family talking. The Bush and Cheney spokesmen — and they themselves — have been trying ever since the day the program was announced to make it sound more green than perhaps it really is. I think there’s another factor involved though in today’s political schedule that indicates what’s going on.
These are meetings of supporters. They are being handled locally by Republican officials. There’s nothing sinister about this. It happens all the time. But between nuclear power and coal particularly, I think you see an effort to rally the base here right now at a time when Congress is about to do some more legislating in an area — conservation — where it’s apt to do several things that either the administration didn’t propose in the first place or actually opposes.
GWEN IFILL: So you get out in front of the parade?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, I’m not sure. Again without the president I just don’t… there’s a question about impact. The primary topic, particularly before the House in the coming weeks, is going to be conservation. There have been some very interesting votes at the committee level in the last several days — one in particular. Last week on the subject of fuel efficiency standards where a desire in both parties to raise them passed in an… in an energy-oriented committee by a vote, I think, of 29-3.
The administration hasn’t taken a position on this yet, but my suspicion is that you’re going to see the administration gradually embrace this conservation movement in Congress. It’s very much inspired by what’s been happening in California not simply because of the success in conserving use of electricity but its success in saving money.
GWEN IFILL: Throughout all of these Bush statements there does seem to be this emphasis on responsibility, the notion that we are responsible for fixing this problem. Do you think that has been resonating?
DAVID BROOKS: I think if you had to pick one word to define the Bush presidency that runs through all the speeches and all the policy issues, that word is responsibility: That if you’re going to use oil or energy, you have to find some way to pump it. And that is the thing about this approach. You know, they really have done a terrible job of selling it because of this defensiveness, this oil industry defensiveness.
But if you look at the program, there actually is a reasonable balance of infrastructure improvements, production and conservation. And I think one of the things they’re trying to do today is to get out of the Washington mentality where the Democrats say they’re only for production and the Republicans say they’re watermelons. They’re green on the outside, red on the inside. They’re only for conservation. And get some sort of a responsible balance where real people handle both sides of the issue.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about this oil industry defensiveness for a while. Do these polls – the one we saw in the piece – and others have led people to believe that maybe Dick Cheney’s connections to Halliburton, George W. Bush’s connections to the oil industry, other members of the cabinet, has this really hurt or is that just a perception?
TOM OLIPHANT: It’s played a role in the background but I think since May 17 when the program was announced that the specifics have had something to do with this as well. As I said earlier, part of the problem I think politically has been in definition. In other words, what do you want to do? How much oil in addition to what’s being produced now do you want to produce? Where? How? A timetable?
One administration official said to me a couple of weeks ago that one of the difficulties in managing this process right now is that it’s pretty hard to figure out how you get a win against some opponent, particularly in Congress. And so that’s why I think if you look at what’s going on today, the muted presence of the president or non-presence of the president, you see the beginning… I don’t think it’s they’ve gone back to square one, but I do think this is an effort to almost to start over again.
GWEN IFILL: Square one was also when Christie Todd Whitman publicly disagreed with the administration about carbon monoxide levels. Seeing all the administration, cabinet members go around the country now, is this a concerted effort to say we’re altogether or we’re all on the same page?
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I think so. The first few months were spent humiliating all the cabinet secretaries one by one. Now they’re boosting them back up and sort of depoliticizing it. But one place they’re not going is California, which is energy central. Now why aren’t they going there? My own theory is they don’t want to pick another fight with Gray Davis. The president versus Gray Davis, that’s a political fight they don’t want to have.
The last time they sent a Republican official out there was Governor Gilmore, the political leader of the party. They want to depoliticize it, and which is what you do when you’re about to go into the four House committees, a Senate committee and try to work out an agreement.
GWEN IFILL: How does this issue rank with the other big domestic priorities that we’re hearing this administration talk about, patients’ bill of rights or some version thereof, faith based initiatives?
TOM OLIPHANT: That’s a key question. And one way to answer it is by vignette. Last week the president went up to the Hill, a pep talk was in order, talking with his troops on the House side of things. And I was struck by the absence of energy from his pep talk. In other words, in talking to the members of his own party about the things that are coming up in the next few weeks, you know, the disputes were all familiar with about patients’ bill of rights, campaign finance reform, the economy, taxes, not this.
I don’t think it has dropped in priority at all, but the message today… David mentioned a tendency in the oil industry to be politically defensive sometimes. There’s a defensive nature to this message. The visual aid at the White House today after all was a graph showing the ups and downs of energy prices, oil prices, since 1977 when OPEC started trying to restrict production. I think they’re trying to say, you know, don’t go to sleep now. This could happen again. That is not a powerful message. And without the president’s voice, it’s hard to believe that this has the priority it did on May 17.
GWEN IFILL: Can the administration take credit now that the prices have gone down for natural gas and gasoline, can the administration take credit for having talked the prices down the way they were given a hit for talking the….
DAVID BROOKS: It was the market that did it. We have had a tremendous increase in natural gas drilling. We’ve had a tremendous increase in refinery capacity being used. The market undercuts the policy. The weird thing about this policy is it’s not a free market policy. The Cato Institute, the libertarians in town, are against it. It’s massive federal intervention forcing localities to take power lines and things like that. It’s a very unfree market activity. And as happened with past energy policies the market is moving a lot faster than the government.
TOM OLIPHANT: However, shameful as it may be to say this, the fact remains that a president always takes credit and blame for the status quo. And as some political advisers in the administration like to point out, Mary Matlin being one on Dick Cheney’s staff, look, this is not the place to argue about the 1990s. But the fact is this administration came forward with a comprehensive analysis of energy and presented its ideas. It continues to try at various levels to push them. If two years or three years from now the status quo is one of moderate prices, adequate supplies, the president has every right to take credit for that and he will.
GWEN IFILL: That’s a nice note on which to leave it. Tom, David, thank you very much.