Environment and offshore drilling: McCain's subtle distancing act

Throughout the primary, McCain emphasized conservative positions, moving closer to the president on a number of issues -- including torture and tax cuts. Last week, after the Supreme Court ruled to restore habeas corpus for Guantanamo detainees, McCain chose to embrace the Bush Administration's legacy and run with it when the ruling had offered him a brilliant opportunity to run as his own man. National security is not an issue on which McCain is tempted to break with Republican orthodoxy.

In fact, there aren't many such issues according to a New York Times piece published yesterday that goes over the similarities and differences between McCain and Bush. The article is accompanied by a useful graphic that recapitulates the piece's findings and discovers that the only issues of disagreement are torture (on which McCain toned down his position this year), federal spending (he is significantly further to the Right than Bush on this one) and matters relating to the environment/energy.

It makes little sense for McCain to campaign on torture given that Barack Obama does not very interested in pursuing Bush's interrogation tactics (though you can bet Democrats would have made an issue out of this had Republicans selected Romney or Giuliani), leaving the environment as an issue on which McCain believes he can show how he is a new kind of Republican. In fact, the Bush Administration has set such a low standard on these matters that it is enough for McCain to say that he believes in global warming without even promising to do anything about it for that to become major news -- and a major break for the past.

In a major speech he gave on Tuesday, McCain sought to explicitly distance himself from the President on these issues and the campaign accompanied this effort by releasing a new ad claiming that McCain "stood up to the President and sounded the alarm on global warming:"

The ad also mentions McCain's commitment to curbing gas emissions. But for every one of McCain's gestures towards the center, he needs to also adapt his position to remain accepted by conservatives. A longtime opponent of ANWAR, McCain reiterated his opposition yesterday but announced that he was now in favor of lifting the moratorium on offshore drilling. This is essential to America gaining energy independence and fight the rise of high gas prices, McCain now argues.

And President Bush wasted no time following McCain on the issue, as the New York Times reports he will now call on Congress to pass such legislation. I am not sure why Bush is repeating McCain's arguments a day after the Arizona Senator (is he trying to prevent McCain from distancing himself from him?), but this will certainly not help McCain create space on the one issue he is planning to continually use to do so.

Overall, the environment is an issue independent voters care about and McCain could strengthen his maverick image if he convinces voters that his approach to the issue is a non-partisan one. After Obama criticized McCain's proposals, the Republican campaign characteristically responded that Obama is constrained by "ideology," whatever that means. This will be a typical of the next few months as both candidates will attempt to demonstrate that they are the true post-partisan "problem-solver" and that the other candidate is a highly partisan posing as a moderate. Who knew that the 2008 campaign would be defined by resembles Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mike Bloomberg the most?

Note that offshore drilling remains very unpopular in coastal states such as Florida, and McCain's new support for lifting the moratorium will not sit well in that crucial battleground state. Surprisingly, Governor Charlie Crist reversed his own position yesterday and endorsed McCain's suggestion whereas any Florida politician is supposed to unequivocally oppose such ideas. And as Jonathan Martin points out, Crist really changed his position on this one as he was adamantly speaking out against offshore drilling just last week. This can mean that (1) the GOP believes that high oil prices effectively change the equation and give them an opening or that (2) Charlie Crist is really really committed to becoming McCain's vice-presidential pick and is thus groveling to be selected.

Labels: ,