Now Is the Key Moment for Energy in the Presidential Race

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You know that moment in a football game when the players are streaking downfield, the quarterback has lofted a pass, the ball is in the air, and you just can't tell yet whether the receiver is going to come down with the catch or the defensive back is going to bat it away? That's where we are right now on the issue of energy in the presidential race.

Republicans have had their fun with tire gauges, and as John McCain relentlessly hammered home his support for offshore drilling (which he used to oppose), he narrowed Barack Obama's lead in national polls. But now a group of five Democratic and five Republican senators is pushing compromise legislation that could blunt the GOP attacks. Last week, the "Gang of 10" announced a plan to expand drilling off the Gulf of Mexico and southern Atlantic states, keep the ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and along the West Coast, extend tax credits and incentives for fuel-efficient purchases, put $20 billion into developing alternative fuels, and pay for the whole $84 billion package by repealing tax breaks on oil and gas companies and hiking their licensing fees.

Liberals and conservatives can each find things to dislike about this proposal. But it's pretty clear that the Gang of 10 plan has a better chance of getting through Congress this fall than any Republican proposal to simply start more drilling, and it's far more politically viable than Nancy Pelosi's attempt to quash discussion of the entire subject. If it passes, its sponsors will be able to boast that they got something done on a pressing issue and will gain approval from media types (and maybe undecided voters) who like bipartisanship and compromise.

But McCain's ground game was working in the pre–Gang of 10 environment, and he was looking forward to keeping Obama uncomfortable on drilling. Because he has supported tax breaks for oil companies, and has opposed repealing them to pay for investments in clean energy, McCain now faces an uncomfortable choice. He can oppose the Gang of 10 plan, which will force him to defend his past votes and to explain how his stance fits into the "all of the above" approach on energy that he says he advocates. Or he can change his position and support the plan's tax increases and limits on drilling.

For Obama, in contrast, the Gang of 10 plan is a Hail Mary of a godsend. It might let him not only get past drilling and refocus on energy efficiency, but also highlight his willingness to work with Republicans at a time when the congressional Democratic leadership has been particularly inept. That's why Obama was willing to risk charges of flip-flopping on another issue and support the plan. "I am not interested in making the perfect the enemy of the good, particularly since there's so much good in this compromise," he said last Monday.

Lefties and righties alike smell the whole issue turning. "Has McCain walked into an energy trap?" Sam Stein wondered last Wednesday. "The Gang of 10: Obama's Checkmate?" Nate Silver asked on Thursday. "You can start with stupidity, you can start with selfishness," Rush Limbaugh spluttered on Friday. "McCain wants to open up drilling, it's become his issue, and these five Republican senators just nuked it." All that's premature, particularly since the elements of Obama's energy plan that aren't about improving fuel efficiency, such as his proposal to open the strategic petroleum reserve, are pretty gimmicky. But the football is in the air. —Peter Keating