WASHINGTON--On the issue of gasoline prices, Republicans think they have a winner in their call for new drilling and Democrats are playing defense. Democrats need--this is a technical term--a lot more oomph. Al Gore wants to help them.
In a speech here on Thursday and in an interview, Gore played his usual role as unpaid party visionary by arguing that we can ease the climate crisis, the economic crisis and the crisis of dependence on foreign energy all at once.
"We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet," Gore said in his speech. "Every bit of that's got to change." He urges a 10-year goal for getting 100 percent of our electricity from renewable sources and clean, rather than carbon-based, fuels.
It sounds like a typical, idealistic Al Gore idea. But two things about this proposal merit attention. It points a country that uses too much energy down the right path. And Gore is showing that being environmentally responsible is economically sensible.
Democrats should be concerned about where they are on the gas-price issue right now, and the party's own strategists are worried that its response so far is inadequate.
What the Democrats have been saying about the Bush administration's energy record is certainly true: The money taxpayers threw at the oil and gas industry in Vice President Cheney's energy plan did nothing to help consumers at the pump.
And promises that more offshore drilling will magically bring down prices are not backed up by the evidence. "We have been drilling for more oil, and the prices have gone up," Gore said in the interview. "A lot more oil has been found, a lot more has been produced."
In his speech, Gore uttered the disturbing truth that "the exploding demand for oil, especially in places like China, is overwhelming the rate of new discoveries by so much that oil prices are almost certain to continue upward over time no matter what the oil companies promise."
But voters have this odd view that when they face a problem, they want their politicians to do something. Drilling offshore sounds better than not acting at all. That's why McCain flipped on the issue and now backs drilling.
In a survey report released last week by Democracy Corps, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and strategist James Carville concluded that their party has "not yet advanced a compelling narrative" on the problem of high gas prices and that "John McCain enters the offshore drilling debate with voters' favor."
In an otherwise upbeat report on Barack Obama's chances, they warn that the public "wants the government to act to address the immediate price consequences, and to act now for achieving energy independence in the medium and long-term."
"A majority of voters," they continue, "believe that coupling an investment in alternative fuels with increased domestic production of oil is preferable to alternative fuel investment combined with energy conservation alone."
What Gore said on Thursday won't solve the Democrats' immediate problem on the drilling issue. But he is making what Greenberg and Carville call for: "a bigger offer" on energy.
Gore's core assertion is that the technology for alternative fuels-- wind, solar and geothermal--is far more advanced than we realize. Pushing that progress further would cut the costs of energy, with Gore insisting that renewables could eventually "give us the equivalent of $1-per-gallon gasoline."
"The only way to break free from the burden of rising gasoline prices and electricity rates is to get free" from a process through which we "bid up the price of every last drop of oil and every last lump of coal," he said in the interview. Cheaper electricity, in turn, will speed the onset of electric cars.
The United States is now at a disadvantage in the global economy because we use disproportionate amounts of energy. According to the International Energy Agency, Americans use nearly twice as many tons of oil equivalent per person as do the Japanese and the Germans, and more than double that of the Swiss. Yes, our vast country may inevitably use more energy than more compact nations, but surely we can do better.
Voters say they hate gimmicks and insist they want bold solutions. Well, Gore is testing that proposition. He says he wants to "expand the political space" for those actually running for office. Will they take the opening?
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
By E.J. Dionne, Jr.