Campaign 2008

E&E political reporter Alex Kaplun takes an in-depth look at the White House race

With less than two months to go before the 2008 elections, energy remains a hot topic on the campaign trail for both presidential candidates. During today's OnPoint, E&E political reporter Alex Kaplun discusses the energy and climate messages coming out of the Obama and McCain campaigns. Kaplun explains how John McCain's vice presidential pick, Sarah Palin, could affect decisions on ANWR drilling and climate in a future McCain administration. He also discusses Obama's push for green jobs and how it may shape the candidate's energy and climate policy.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With us today to discuss the role that energy and climate are playing in the 2008 election is E&E political reporter, Alex Kaplun. Alex, thanks for being here.

Alex Kaplun: My pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: Alex, you reported from both conventions and have been following the campaigns very closely. What are the biggest energy and climate themes heading into the last two months of the campaigns?

Alex Kaplun: Yeah, I think we're going to see a lot of the same that we've seen in the last couple of months. But one of the things that was very striking from the conventions is that both parties, and especially the two presidential candidates, are kind of talking about the same ideas, but what they're emphasizing on is very different. I think what you'll see McCain continue to emphasize on is his offshore drilling push, nuclear power, clean coal, things like that, sort of what's kind of been the bread-and-butter Republican message of really talking to some of these kinds of more traditional industries, focusing on that message. I think the Obama campaign, they've sort of said, look, we're somewhat open to most, if not all of those things, but their emphasis, and it was kind of very, very clear during their convention, is going to be on renewable energy, on green jobs, on focusing on the alternative technologies, things that they view as sort of really changing the energy dynamic for many years.

Monica Trauzzi: And we're going to talk a little more about the green collar jobs in a moment. The price of oil has dropped significantly since earlier in the summer. It was over $140 a barrel and now it's down around $100. If high energy prices are no longer prevalent in voters' minds, what does that mean for the campaigns? Does their message need to change at all?

Alex Kaplun: I mean I definitely think the lower gas prices get, if they do get lower, sort of a little bit farther down this issue will fall. However, I don't think we're going to have a situation where we had say in even 2004, where energy was a big issue for about a few weeks and it disappeared by Election Day. I mean I think a few things are different here. I think, first of all, this is a big issue for the Republican base. I mean they really sort of see energy policy and drilling as a big opening for their party. You know, one thing to remember about the Republicans, just a few months ago, this is a party that a lot of analysts said, you know, what's their message going into the election, what are they going to talk about, why would people vote for them? They feel this energy issue is kind of the issue that they have that sort of puts them over the Democrats and gives them a huge advantage, so I don't think they're going to let go of it, you know, even if prices do drop a little bit. I also think you talk to a lot of people and we think we've reached a point with the energy issue where people realize that this is something that's going to be a factor for many years to come, that, OK, just because prices drop now doesn't mean they're not going to spike back to four dollars, five dollars six months from now. So I don't think voters are going to completely forget about that issue. I still think it's going to be a major factor for the remaining two months.

Monica Trauzzi: And the Democrats have slightly changed their tone on offshore drilling in the last month or two. Obama opposes drilling. Is this going to make things difficult for Obama when it comes to the debates since the Democrats are now going to allow a vote on offshore drilling?

Alex Kaplun: It really depends. At the moment I don't particularly think so because Obama has actually said something very similar to what House Democrats have been talking about, is, well, I'm not really in favor of offshore drilling, but if we need to do it as sort of part of some bigger, broader energy package that lets us do all these other things, they might be able to accept it. And I mean that's kind of what Pelosi and House Democrats are going for, is they're not necessarily saying, OK, let's be all gung ho on offshore drilling. What they're saying is we have all these priorities that we want to get done that we never could get done, let's put them along with offshore drilling and see what happens. And I think Obama would approach it in much the same way as sort of making offshore drilling kind of a second-tier issues, still continuing to focus on renewable energy alternatives or tax breaks or repealing tax breaks for oil companies, that kind of thing.

Monica Trauzzi: So, what we see happening in Congress over the next three weeks is pretty closely tied to what we're going to be hearing on the campaign trail?

Alex Kaplun: Yeah, I mean I think it depends on exactly what Congress does. If we see more of the same that we saw before the August recess, where it's just sort of dueling press conferences and no legislation really ever gets anywhere, I think both Obama and McCain will be able to stay kind of removed from that and keep running on their message. I mean I think the only real way it becomes a major issue for them is if it gets to a point where, OK, that's this side, if they're going to show up on Capitol Hill to vote for something or not vote for something. You know, having said that, I don't think either Senate leadership wants to put their presidential candidate in a position where they're going to have to cast a difficult vote on an energy issue. So I think they'll both be able to steer clear a little bit. One of the other things to remember about both McCain and Obama is they're really trying to run as sort of not Washington guys, as not necessarily people who are representing their party or the leaders of their party. So I think that way they'll try to create some distance from what's happening in Washington.

Monica Trauzzi: How does the Republican platform compare to McCain's stance on energy and climate? There are some noticeable differences.

Alex Kaplun: I think the two big things, and this has been discussed a lot, is on ANWR. The Republican platform, the last couple of cycles, has always been pro drilling in ANWR. This time, they don't take it off the table. They sort of say it should be open, but they don't go so far as to call for drilling. On climate the platform recognizes that climate change is happening, that mankind has contributed in some way. They don't endorse anything sort of nearly as dramatic as what McCain has called for, cap and trade, or any kind of policy like that. And I think it's interesting, it's kind of a halfway point between where Republicans have been and where McCain is. They haven't gotten quite as far as their presidential candidate, but they certainly moved away from the last three or four platforms on these issues.

Monica Trauzzi: You mentioned ANWR, Sarah Palin, the vice presidential pick for McCain, supports drilling in ANWR. Do you see a shift on ANWR in the tea leaves for McCain?

Alex Kaplun: You know, I asked a lot, a lot of people that exact question at the Republican convention and got very mixed things. I think there's a lot of Republicans who believe that Palin, along with their own efforts, can move McCain on this issue. And offshore drilling is kind of leading them to believe that. They think, you know, if we present an argument for President McCain that ANWR can be drilled in a safe way, you know, we can convince him to do it. Now, I think there's other Republicans that say, look, he's locked in on this issue. It's not going to change anything and there's plenty of other places where we can drill. ANWR, you know, we certainly should remember, but let's not kind of make our focus just about this issue. As for Sarah Palin, per se, I don't know that she, in and of herself, is going to change John McCain's mind. I mean if she's an important player in his administration, then certainly that's another voice, another kind of person that can try to convince him, but I don't think John McCain necessarily is going to look for Sarah Palin as sort of guidance on energy policy.

Monica Trauzzi: So, she wouldn't change his mind on climate either, because they have pretty opposite views on climate change?

Alex Kaplun: I mean again, everything having to do with Sarah Palin at this point is kind of speculative and it really depends on what kind of role she plays in his administration. I mean if she plays a Dick Cheney kind of role where she's crafting energy policy in the early days, certainly not going to have a substantial impact. If she plays sort of the more conventional VP role, I don't know that it would. I think with an issue like climate it's not going to be so much any - there are a lot of Republicans that think John McCain can be moved from his current climate change position. I don't know if that has anything to do with Sarah Palin so much as economic factors, whether it's sort of politically practical, that kind of thing. I think Republicans view Sarah Palin as being a good sign. I don't think many of them think that, OK, she's going to get in there and change John McCain's mind on everything.

Monica Trauzzi: Does she have an edge against Joe Biden when it comes to the debates, talking about energy?

Alex Kaplun: I mean the Republicans certainly think so. They even made this argument that she's been Alaska's governor and she's one of the few people who can sort of talk about both, how to drill and do it in an environmentally responsible way, just because she's sort of had to deal with those issues firsthand. You know, as for the debate with Biden, you know, Biden is someone who's familiar with these issues. I think both of them are going to kind of focus on what the Democratic and Republican talking points have been and sort of those issues. Experience is an important factor. I'm not sure how you get that across the in a debate per se. I mean Sarah Palin will certainly say, look, I've done it. But I don't think most voters know that she's done it or what it means. So I think it's going to be like a lot of debates, it's going to be won on who makes the best argument, who looks the best, not necessarily what they've done in the past.

Monica Trauzzi: You touched on the fact that Senator Obama has been touting green collar jobs recently. How does that fit into an overall energy policy and what we might see from an Obama administration in their first six months?

Alex Kaplun: Yeah, I think it's really interesting. One of the things, if you listen to Obama talk, and a lot of his advisers, is they're really focusing on this issue of green jobs. And they view it as something that lets them tackle climate change and energy policy and the economy, which is going to be a huge issue obviously for whoever wins the White House. And they see it as this is something that's encompassing all of these things. If we can sell the public on this idea of green jobs then we sort of don't need to sell them per se on climate change legislation or really sort of massive overhauls in the energy policy. That if we do these things we can get at all these other problems. There's certainly recognition around Democrats of how difficult it will be to make this kind of sale. You know, they recognize that what they're talking about, maybe not overtly, but sort of the message here is the significance of the overhaul of the U.S. economy and they're going to need a serious, almost campaign style effort once he gets into the White House to sell that kind of thing.

Monica Trauzzi: So, then is there less of an emphasis on climate in the campaigns than we were maybe expecting? And what does that mean for legislation next year basically?

Alex Kaplun: You know, I've personally it wasn't expecting much emphasis on climate in the campaigns period, but I do think it's sort of striking, again going back to the conventions, at the Democratic convention you had very few speakers give any kind of mention of climate other than as a passing sentence, as sort of one of the things we have to do. There were a couple of notable exceptions. Al Gore got up there and gave a fairly lengthy speech that focused particularly on climate. At the Republican convention climate was just not really much of an issue at all. I mean I think if you talk to advisers in both the McCain and Obama camps they say they're committed to this issue. It's still a big priority for them. But it is a difficult issue because on climate you kind of have to convince voters that it's not going to cost them jobs. And while both sort of McCain and Obama believe that they can do that, I'm not sure they want to do that in the middle of the presidential campaign. I think once one of them gets to the White House a lot of that is going to depend on just what else is going on, what other issues are on the table. As I said, the economy is going to be a huge factor for the next president and I think they realize it's going to be a hard challenge for either one of them to sell something like say a cap-and-trade bill in poor economic conditions. It's going to be very easy for opponents to make the argument, you know, if you think the economy is bad, just wait until we tax your energy.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we're going to end it right there on that note. Thanks for being here Alex.

Alex Kaplun: Sure.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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