John McCain had been having a tough time coming up with a credible domestic policy agenda. Given his druthers, he would prefer to talk about Iraq and national security 24/7. But even with growing recognition of the surge's success in Iraq, McCain would be foolhardy to cede domestic issues to Barack Obama.
Voters, according to polls, overwhelmingly rank domestic issues higher than national security. With a faltering economy, soaring gas prices, a housing crisis and middle class qualms about rising health care and college costs, McCain is unlikely to win over the key swing voters unless he starts talking about bread-and-butter issues, no matter how improved the situation in Iraq.
Republicans began to fret that McCain lacked the interest or ability to do just that. Would he adopt a reform agenda? Could he "repackage" his economic plan? Conservative pundits and talk-show hosts buzzed with criticism and suggestions.
But then something surprising happened. McCain might have caught a break, or to be generous, created his own break. The skyrocketing price of gasoline has become a major campaign issue. In the primary, Obama could dispense with Hillary Clinton's gas holiday issue with the back of his hand and talk about his multibillion dollar plan to invest in new energy technologies. That was more than enough to satisfy the liberal Democratic base.
But in a general election with gas prices now well over $4 a gallon the public is demanding more. McCain, not known for his creative policy development, saw an opening. He made the most of a grab-bag of energy production ideas: offshore drilling, expanding natural gas exploration, nuclear power and even a prize for developing an electric car. He tossed in some conservation measures and added a promise to investigate price speculation. And, voila, he had some answers for very upset voters.
McCain does not suffer for lack of ideas. For starters he wants to boost domestic energy development and production. He would lift the current federal moratorium on drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf. And he wants to go after the estimated 77 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas.
He's also looking to boost private sector development of new cars: a $5,000 tax credit for customers who buy a zero carbon emission car and a $300 million prize for the development of a battery package "that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars." He is also willing to put money into science, research and development of so-called clean coal and to build 45 new nuclear power plants by 2030 (with an ultimate goal of 100 new plants).
On the tax side he is looking to make permanent a tax credit equal to 10 percent of wages spent on R&D. And perhaps the best news for fiscal conservatives is what he opposes: a windfall oil profits tax, which he correctly notes "will ultimately result in increasing our dependence on foreign oil and hinder investment in domestic exploration," as it did under Jimmy Carter.
He does give a nod to conservation without hounding Americans to turn up their thermostats. He will require government to get its own house in order, with higher efficiency standards for new buildings leased or purchased or retrofitting existing buildings.
He gave it all a snappy name, the Lexington project, and stayed on message at a number of town halls, in interviews, and with TV and online ads. Aside from Iraq, McCain had never shown so much interest or so much discipline on an issue.
Furthermore, McCain's heretofore anemic communications team also focused on Obama's responses to the gas price hikes -- a muffed comment that it would have been better for prices to rise more slowly and a lot of "no thanks" retorts to McCain's ideas. The McCain team then came up with a slick moniker for Obama: Dr. No.
And, to everyone's surprise, most especially critical Republicans, McCain had a viable and compelling message (both positive and negative) on an issue voters really cared about. Could the Agent of Change be transformed into Dr. No? Could McCain actually appear to be the more innovative problem-solver of the two? If McCain could feel voters' pain at the gas pump, he might take a big step toward dispelling the Obama dig that he is a one-trick (national security) pony.
Public polling indicates McCain may have caught a wave. Significant majorities now favor increased domestic oil production including offshore drilling. When Obama doubled-down on Tuesday, declaring that he wouldn't be joining the ranks of nervous Democrats now considering offshore oil development, the McCain team no doubt smiled broadly.
The challenge for McCain will be to sustain his energy message and, if he is wise, learn a broader lesson: voters really do want solutions, both long and short term to what ails them. McCain has showed an ability to do what most observers heretofore thought was not possible: come up with realistic-sounding solutions to Americans top concerns and drive his message home. If he can do this on issues other than energy, he may lose his reputation for indifference to domestic policy and make real headway with independent voters. That, in an election filled with constant surprises, might be one of the biggest yet.
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