So, before our telephone interview is a minute old, the junior senator from Massachusetts has already introduced me to one of the defining features of a modern presidential campaign: preparing for an effective and rapid response to the inevitable (and mostly predictable) attacks from the other side. Actually, I've already been schooled in a second feature: message discipline, since I have reluctantly agreed to limit my questions to Kerry's energy policy proposals, the theme of Kerry's speech in Seattle on the morning of Wednesday, May 26.
Kerry has been carving out centrist positions on a host of issues--tax policy and the troubled Iraq occupation come immediately to mind--but on environmental and energy policy, a long-standing personal concern, Kerry remains an unrepentant liberal. His lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters stands at a sparkling 92 percent (the same group gave President Bush an F for his policies in 2003). With public anger over rising gas prices mounting, Kerry will spend his trip to the Northwest touting his views as a stark alternative to Bush's drill-and-shill (for oil companies) approach to energy.
So how bad are the Bush administration's policies in these areas? "It's the worst, the worst of any presidency in modern times," Kerry says. "Worse than Ronald Reagan's."
Kerry may be asking his aides for more, but he already has a thorough critique of Bush administration stands on environment and energy issues, one that is tough, withering, and, dare I say it, a little bit angry. There is no equivocation in it, no over-reliance on the sort of nuance that so often has observers rolling their eyes. He believes the Bush administration is slavishly salaaming before its friends in the energy industry, and he sounds every bit as forceful and certain in his conviction as Howard Dean (or George Bush).
He ticks off the Bush lowlights in one continuous stream of verbiage: "They're going backwards. They're exclusively the prisoners of oil and gas. They have no real commitment to alternative and renewable fuels. They've gone backwards on oil, on air quality." The list continues: backwards on water quality, backwards on forest policy. Backwards on Superfund cleanups, backwards on wetlands. They've declared global warming "dead" and refuse "to deal with the realities of the science."
The Bush administration, Kerry sharply asserts, has handed environmental policy to a cabal of ideologues who do not believe in protecting the environment, and see the land only as a resource to be exploited for profit. "I see it as a broad-based capitulation to the right wing in America that has never liked, never voted for, never supported clean air or clean water, believes in endless development no matter what, and doesn't like wilderness set aside. They've been the very people who vote against these things and these are the people who are running the show now," he says.
He vigorously defends the leading role he played in blocking the pork-laden Bush energy plan, devised on the basis of Dick Cheney's secret energy task-force consultations with industry representatives, which called for opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling. He says that he understands that America will need to continue seeking out new oil sources for the next 40 or 50 years, and supports increased drilling where environmentally appropriate, but dismisses as "complete phoniness" the argument that drilling in ANWR will serve as a panacea for the nation's energy needs.
He's right about all this, of course. The Bush administration's predilection for handing over the keys to the candy store to industry lobbyists and lawyers is well documented. So what does Kerry advocate in place of Bush's radical deregulation and massive subsidies to exploitative industries? Kerry's plan consists of a grab bag of proposals that are designed to reduce America's love affair with oil, both by reducing demand and finding alternative sources of energy supply.
It's the right general idea, but when it comes to specifics, Kerry is on somewhat shakier ground. His proposals vary from short-term fixes of dubious efficacy--temporary suspension from filling the government's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, pressuring OPEC to increase production--primarily designed to capitalize on voter anger over rising gas prices, to laudable if piecemeal long-term goals, like producing 20 percent of the nation's electricity from renewable sources by 2020, developing cleaner coal plants, or working to expand North American production of natural gas. He has long advocated for gradually raising fuel economy standards; Republicans' troglodytic repudiation of this sensible proposal was summed up nicely by Trent Lott in March 2001: "The American people have a right to a great big road hog. And I'm gonna get me one." Kerry now rejects the idea of a conservation-inducing hefty increase in the gas tax, a good (though politically unpalatable) idea he once briefly embraced, saying that it is unnecessary.
His energy ideas are good for the environment, Kerry asserts, but they are crucial to our economic and national security. "What if OPEC decided to say, 'Screw you'? What would happen to our oil prices? What would happen to the world economy?" Kerry asks. "No matter how much you drill, there is no way for America to supply future demand ourselves, so why aren't we doing a better job of creating the alternatives and renewables? Why aren't we liberating ourselves from this linkage to Saudi Arabia and other countries which reduces our leverage in what we are trying to achieve in those regions?" This administration's policy, he claims, amounts to an "an oil hostage policy."
There is an implicit wink-wink, nudge-nudge quality to the Kerry campaign in its relationship to liberals. Political exigencies require me to advocate certain things to get elected but bear with me, Kerry implies, because my instincts are your instincts. It's good, though, to hear him say it out loud for once, even if it's only about energy policy.