There was a lot of talk about energy in last night’s presidential debate. Mitt Romney in particular frequently injected energy issues into the proceedings. It’s tough to see, though, how most viewers could have understood much of what the candidates were talking about. As they did in many other parts of the debate, both candidates frequently went deep into the weeds, throwing around numbers and programs that most viewers probably couldn’t follow.
So why were the candidates, and Romney in particular, talking about energy in the first place?
Both candidates seem to be using energy policy as a way of sending broader signals about how they view the world. This isn’t a new approach. That fact jumps out when you look at the 1980 presidential race. Ronald Reagan talked about energy as his way of hammering Jimmy Carter for excessive intervention in the economy and for being out of control. (David Stockman, in his memoir, basically says as much -- and it turns out that he wrote the energy plank of the Republican platform that year.) Reagan also used it to project optimism: America would have all the energy it needed, he suggested, so long as government would get out of the way. Carter tried to blunt the attacks by painting himself as a pragmatist, grabbing the “all of the above” mantle, just as Obama has. It proved to be a difficult sell.
Romney is now taking an approach that isn’t all that different from Reagan’s. He’s using energy as a vehicle to go after Obama for supposedly meddling too much in the economy, for what Romney thinks is managerial incompetence, and for fealty to environmental interests. He’s also using it to appear optimistic about the future. (Neither candidate talked about climate change last night, but when Romney does, a big part of the intended message seems to be “I don’t listen to university eggheads.”)
Obama is talking about energy in part because he’s been forced to, but he’s also using it for its symbolic value. That explains why he used up debate time hammering away at oil industry tax breaks that are relatively small in budgetary terms; it’s his way of saying that Romney stands with industry over average Americans. (This tactic goes back to the 1970s too.) Once upon a time, he also used energy as a way of talking about the importance of government’s role in the economy, but at least at last night’s debate, he didn’t go that way. Perhaps most troubling for his political strategists, his attempts to defend claims that he’s for “all of the above” seem to be having about as much success as Carter’s did.
I suspect that the fact that energy is being leaned on so heavily for its symbolic value also helps explain why energy discussions have become so polarized. (Of course, general polarization of the political system doesn’t help.) It’s one thing for two sides to compromise on the balance between fossil fuels and clean energy, or over the right way to design a regulatory program; this happened several times in the 2000s. It’s another thing if that compromise implicitly means conceding on fundamental questions of how to create jobs, the right role for government in the economy, and whether your opponent is a good or bad guy. So long as our energy debates are proxies for something else, they’re unlikely to come close to being resolved.