The single biggest myth of contemporary politics is that most politicians are slaves to public opinion as expressed through polls and polling. Nothing could be further removed from the truth.
And the response of both parties and most politicians to the current imbroglio over energy policies proves my point.
Neither party, nor more than a handful of their politicians, seems willing to tightly embrace a balanced stance that includes elements of both conservation and increased energy production.
Instead, most Democrats are stuck on conservation and environmental protection policies while Republicans are fixated on getting more energy in the pipeline. The party and politicians that arrive at a balanced position first may reap huge political rewards.
Let’s look at the numbers from polls. They most certainly don’t support one-sided policies and solutions to our energy situation. A June 2008 Pew Research Center poll of Americans offered the stark choice between energy exploration and new power plants, on the one hand, or conservation and regulation of energy use on the other. The outcome of the polling was tight. Forty-seven percent took the supply-side option while 45 percent opted for the conservation choice.
Two other Pew questions, while not as close, underscore that narrow perspectives aren’t overwhelming winners. First, the poll found that 50 percent of Americans favor allowing oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) while 43 percent stood in opposition. Even more bullish for producers is the response to a question regarding the higher priority: protecting the environment, or developing new sources of energy? While 60 percent told Pew interviewers that new sources are a higher-priority, that doesn’t constitute enough of a majority — especially in light of these other percentages — to ignore wholly the environmental angle.
The reality of the energy issue is that ideology and partisan posturing outweigh sensible calculations about public opinion. Democrats, in particular, seem totally tone-deaf on these issues. The trends are completely against them, but they keep singing the two-note ditty of conservation and environmental protection, ignoring all the other notes that would add up to an anthem of energy independence.
In 2001, Pew found that conservation and regulation outpolled drilling, mining and new power plant construction by five points, 49-44. The order is reversed today, with production having a two-point advantage That’s a seven-point shift in seven years.
Similarly, support for drilling in ANWR, only 42 percent in Pew polling as recent as this past February, has risen by eight points in the latest survey.
Most significantly, in 2001 Pew polling, only 49 percent of Americans chose new production over environmental protection. Sentiment for production soared 11 points higher in the Pew poll taken last month.
Why don’t Democrats take such findings into account and, more broadly, embrace production initiatives? It’s because the Democratic Party has fallen into the clutches of a special-interest constituency that is fueled by hatred of the oil and gas industry. If the Democrats ever appeared to be even slightly friendly with the energy industry, this special interest would go nuts.
Republican are not nearly as blind to the appeal of conservation, yet we still don’t handle the issue to maximum advantage. Because Rush Limbaugh and a few other talkers brand conservation a sell-out, many Republicans fumble opportunities to attract supporters. Given the choice of riding in a Hummer or Prius in a July 4 parade, some Republican officeholders would have opted for the Hummer. They would actually fear being labeled “green” in the hybrid. And they probably won’t get reelected.
Winning elections is not as important to many partisans as some so-called experts assume.
When it comes to energy issues, they’d rather be “in the right” than in the winner’s circle.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.