Politics

Kerry campaign adviser examines how energy issues affected the 2004 race

During the 2004 presidential campaign, environmental and energy issues largely took a back seat to the war in Iraq, homeland security and other topics. But with skyrocketing energy prices and the after-effects of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Democrats in the House and Senate are seizing on energy as a key issue for the 2006 elections. Roger Ballentine, a senior adviser to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on energy and environmental issues, and currently president of Green Strategies, Inc., looks back at Kerry's successes and failures during last year's presidential race. Plus, Ballentine predicts how energy issues will affect the 2006 elections and whether climate change will matter to voters at the polls.

Transcript

Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today is Roger Ballantine, a senior adviser to Senator Kerry during last year's presidential campaign. He's also the president of Green Strategies Incorporated, a consulting firm on energy and environmental issues. Roger thanks a lot for being here.

Roger Ballantine: Thanks for having me.

Brian Stempeck: First off, right off the bat, I want to look back at the 2004 campaign a little bit. You were an adviser on energy and environmental issues. Looking back do you feel like those issues could have been stressed more during the campaign?

Roger Ballantine: Well, I think it's a combination of things Brian. Certainly they could've been stressed more, but I think it's also a question of how those issues were couched and how they weren't couched. If you looked at what Senator Kerry was proposing in terms of our energy plan it really was, by all accounts, a very sophisticated comprehensive energy policy. That didn't translate terribly well into the message on the stump and in terms of the talking points of the campaign. I think one of the opportunities we missed, frankly, was not doing a better job of talking about how these issues, how these energy issues, are not just about energy. They're about so many other issues that people care about, national security, the economy and the environment. And I think that it is putting energy issues in these larger contexts, ones that voters are certainly most concerned about, that really was an opportunity that we didn't take full advantage of.

Brian Stempeck: I was going to say it only really came up once during the debates where you had an energy and environmental issue come up and at the same time a lot of environmental groups are consistently attacking the Bush administration's record. Was it a matter of the public just not really caring enough about these issues or a failure to stress it? What do you think was, I guess, the main problem behind it?

Roger Ballantine: Well, it's interesting because, of course environment and energy are kind of the two sides of a coin in a lot of ways and that is true, but that's also one of the problems. That energy was kind of buttonholed I think in terms of what the pollsters thought we should be talking about, as kind of a segregated and maybe even second-tier issue. Now having said that, I do think that the Kerry campaign put more emphasis on energy than any presidential campaign has done in quite a long time. And that was largely given a lot of the concerns in the country about energy following blackouts and, at that time, what was a run up in gasoline prices that we were very concerned about. Looking back now of course it seems like child's play. But I do think that the American people do care about these issues. I'm not sure that they necessarily respond in a poll and say energy is something they're concerned about, but they're certainly concerned about the family budget and how much money they're spending on energy. They understand that a lot of the money that we spend in this country on energy we send overseas and we send to places and people who don't share our values and don't promote democracy and don't support the interest of the United States, but we're beholding to them because we need their energy. And I think people understand that, so when you talk about it, for example, in a national security context, people care about that. Again, environment keeps polling in kind of a second-tier level, but again I think that has a lot to do with how you asked the question and the way you talk about it. Because if you put it in terms of clean air, clean water, children's health, preservation of green open space and having reasonable parks and access, and things like that, then it would poll very, very high. So it's kind of a question of how you talk about these issues and I think John Kerry did a lot of things right in that regard, but we clearly didn't do enough because I do think energy was a real vulnerability for the Bush administration and one that we didn't fully take advantage of.

Brian Stempeck: Now as I speak right now we have record natural gas prices, record gasoline prices, and it seems like Democrats in both the House and Senate are really starting to make this a political attack issue. You're seeing Senator Reid, in the Senate, talking about basically how this is one of the tenants of ways the Democrats can go after Republicans. How much of an issue do you expect energy to be looking ahead to the 2006 midterm elections?

Roger Ballantine: I think it will be an enormous issue in the 2006 elections. I don't think there's any question about that for a number of reasons. First, we are not going to back to the days of super low energy prices. We're just not. I mean the price of oil may fluctuate little bit, natural gas will fluctuate a little bit, but what we're looking at now is kind of a demand driven increase in prices, as opposed to decades past where it was more of a supply constraint that led to the run up in prices. This is more sustained. Now the good news is that a demand driven rise in prices means that the economy itself is doing relatively well and therefore the pinch is not felt quite as hard by people who are otherwise doing relatively well. But that's changing because these prices are getting very high and once we get through this winter, with high home heating oil prices, particularly in the northeast, and what's going to be a very, very expensive winter for people who heat their homes with natural gas. I think that will roll over into the campaign. Now I would characterize it slightly different, I don't think Democrats are looking at this as a basis for attacking Republicans, but it is certainly an opportunity to talk about what Democrats would do differently than what the Republicans have done. And I say that because if you look at what happened in the Senate, for example in the recent energy bill, Democrats and Republicans worked together very productively. Now it was an imperfect bill that got more imperfect when the House got through with it, but I think you saw Democrats really sincerely wanting to be constructive and trying to address energy issues because they are so critical to families and critical to the security of this country and critical to our environment. So it's not just a question of playing politics, but it will be a question of demonstrating that we really do have differences when it comes to what a 21st-century energy policy really needs to look like.

Brian Stempeck: Looking back at Senator Kerry's campaign, what advice would you have to offer to candidates in the House and Senate, Democrats looking for reelection or election for the first time in 2006, looking back at the past campaign?

Roger Ballantine: The most fundamental point that I would make to a candidate would be that use the energy issue. Talk about energy in the context of laying out your values on a host of issues. And use it as an example to say what it is that you care about and what it is that you would do as president, as senator or as a member of Congress. And that is talking about increased independence for America. It's about improving our standing in the world. It's about improving our trade balances by keeping some of that money we send overseas for energy here at home. You know if we keep it here at home we not only help balance the disparities in trade, but we create jobs because that money's going to be here. We send $15 billion a year to the Persian Gulf, in consumer checkbook money, to purchase oil, now $15 billion would be a pretty nice economic development plan in the U.S. And I think what I would tell Democrats to talk about is use the energy issue to say I am for creating jobs at home not overseas. I'm for making America more secure by putting our destiny in our own hands. And I stand for the proposition that we can both have the energy we want and the environment that we deserve, because I think consumers increasingly are demanding that. Yes they want energy. They want reliable energy. They want affordable energy but they also want clean air and clean water and I think they're tired of being told they can't have both. And I think a Democrat that kind of seizes on that message will really do quite well.

Brian Stempeck: I want to turn to another issue that you've been active on in the past. Under President Clinton you were the chief adviser or the head of a White House task force on climate change. In balance now it seems like that's an issue that's really gaining prominence with the public right now. How do you expect that to play in the 2006 election, also looking outward, out to the 2008 presidential race?

Roger Ballantine: It's hard. I can't tell you when we're going to hit the tipping point on climate change and when I say tipping point I mean where it will become a political consensus that we need to take strong mandatory action of some kind to deal with climate. But I can guarantee you that it's going to happen. The progress on this issue has been extraordinary. Back when I was working on this issue in the Clinton administration climate change was a four letter word, among Democrats, among Republicans, you know we were told don't use, don't talk about it. It's political suicide for us to talk about it, but we're way past that. And what you find is, unfortunately, driven in part by what people are seeing happening to our world and to our climate, the consensus now is that global warming is real. That used to be the main debate. It is not the debate anymore, except for on the fringes. But this steady progress in this development of this issue towards more and more of a political consensus item is inevitable. Whether that coalesces by 2006 or not I don't know, but I do think that for Democrats they should be very aware that this is not the issue it was even two years ago. And it is an issue that, I think, a politician can be very forward leaning on and do very well because I think the public is realizing something is going on. And even if we're not 100 percent sure of what the cause is something is happening. There is a risk there and they expect their leaders to deal with that risk and help mitigate that risk. So I think it's going to be a terrific issue for whichever party takes the strong stance on it. And I think right now the Democrats are better poised to do that, but this is an issue that needs to be solved and I hope that both parties will take it and run with it and do it together. That would be the best of all, but if Republicans refuse to move forward on the issue that it's a great opportunity for Democrats.

Brian Stempeck: I was going to say if you're looking out to 2008, clearly Senator McCain is a potential candidate for president and he's, you can say, almost the most active on the climate change issue with his cap-and-trade plan. Does that take away the issue for Democrats as using it as pretty much the environmental issue right now in the 2008 elections?

Roger Ballantine: Well, if Senator McCain is the candidate then probably, but if he's not the candidate, I think the fact that Senator McCain has staked out such a really courageous and principled position on the issue isn't going to insulate whoever the Republican candidate is in all likelihood because Senator McCain has been a bit of a lone wolf in his party on this. So I think that for a Republican to try to bask in the reflective glow of McCain's foresightedness on climate will be difficult to do.

Brian Stempeck: I want to turn to another issue on climate change. You've also been involved in some of the international negotiations on climate change in the past. Looking ahead right now we're looking at a United Nations conference coming up in November, just after Thanksgiving. It's basically the first conference the U.N. is having since the Kyoto Protocol went into effect. In so far the United States is pretty much still on the sidelines. You know the White House, right now, has ties with China and India and some of the other partnerships that they're working on, but as far as Kyoto goes that's not the case. What do you see as the future for the United States being involved on the international scene?

Roger Ballantine: Well, I don't know Brian. It's a difficult situation. It's unfortunate situation. Putting aside the merits of the details of the Kyoto Protocol, and believe me there's a lot to criticize there, but what is clearly worse in my view than moving forward with the Kyoto Protocol is to do nothing. And I think the United States is sacrificing a bit of its leadership role in the world and that inevitably is going to affect its ability to lead on other issues as well by not being engaged in these negotiations. Clearly Kyoto can be improved, but it's not going to be improved from the outside. You have to be in there working on it. So I think it's just more of an issue of United States reasserting its traditional role of leadership in the world on a host of issues and obviously this is one where we've kind of decided to take a pass. And that leaves us significantly out of step with the rest of the world and I think that is not good for the United States.

Brian Stempeck: What would you see as a good approach for the U.S.? I mean clearly there seems to be no support for signing some of the binding commitments under Kyoto. And that support seems to be dwindling from a lot of countries as well that are already signed on to it. If you look out past 2012, to the next, whatever comes after Kyoto, what do you think is going to emerge as the best approach?

Roger Ballantine: Well, the point you make is a good one because I do think we are at the point now, fortunately or unfortunately, that the focus really does need to be on 2012. That is the end of the first Kyoto compliance period. It is absolutely clear the United States is not going to turn around and join Kyoto between now and then. So the question really is now what comes next? And I think that is a tremendous opportunity for the United States to engage and shape that. I do think that it's hard to envision a system post 2012 that doesn't require some changes to the laws in terms of how the United States deals with greenhouse gases. But every day we are seeing policies being enacted at the state level, policies being enacted by corporations voluntarily. The Chicago Climate Exchange being a terrific example, where we are demonstrating and learning every day that we can tackle this issue without sacrificing economic growth. And then once we're creative in that regard and once we learn those lessons that are being taught every day I think the United States could very much play a leadership role in developing a post 2012 climate change international framework that would be good for the United States and good for the climate, but we've got to get working on it now.

Brian Stempeck: All right. Roger, we're out of time. We're going to stop there. Thanks a lot for coming on the show.

Roger Ballantine: Brian, thank you, I appreciate it.

Brian Stempeck: I'd like to thank our guest today. That was Roger Ballantine. I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]

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