Out of the smoke of November 2002, one issue-conspicuous by its absence in the recent campaign-is about to emerge. That issue is the global environment. And it may make Al Gore, who's scheduled to announce his presidential plans soon, the surprise rising star for 2004. For what it's worth, he's already been booked for Barbara Walters, Hardball, and Saturday Night Live in the last few weeks.
Sure, other issues are more compelling: Social Security, Iraq, and taxes, for example, but anyone that tried to beat the administration with those issues wound up beating themselves. It's hard to get passionate about committing political suicide. In every race where Social Security was an issue, candidates who favored private accounts won. Almost everyone-win or lose-was with the president (at least publicly) on Iraq, and raising taxes just isn't vote-productive.
What's left? The Washington political process, in its irrepressible attempt to produce productive controversy (i.e., votes), is behaving like Tom Wolfe's doomed test pilots in The Right Stuff. "I've tried A. I've tried B," and the darned thing won't stop rolling.
Well, try "E." About the only fights that may produce political gain are going to be over energy and environment, which means fights over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, fat subsidies tilting at windmills and solar energy, and "directions" to industry to produce tons of power from the same subsidized sources. If you're wondering who pays for this, look in the mirror.
All of the above are in the current energy bill, a bipartisan compromise between the House and the then-Democratic Senate. Along with most of the other unfinished business from the last Congress, there's no way it's going to remain intact. How much it will be changed is a matter of conjecture. But one provision, ultimately requiring just about every business in the country to report its annual emissions of carbon dioxide (read: fuel consumption), is surely outta' there. Everyone, on both sides of the aisle, knows this is the first step towards a cap on energy use, which must be defined before it can be cut any specific amount.
Carbon dioxide, of course, is the principal cause of dreaded global warming, so any attempt to dilute current legislation will raise the bloody green shirt. And where global warming goes, Gore is soon to follow.
For nearly a year, Dick Morris has been pleading with the Democrats to pick up this issue. In fact, in his recent book, "Power Plays," he argues that Gore would have won in 2000 if he had followed his own instincts on fighting climate change, which is the real reason why he wanted to be president. Democrats see this coming, too. Last month, the Democratic Leadership Council issued a broadside entitled "Turn Up the Heat on Climate Change," spoiling for a fight on global warming.
Don't expect a clear, reflexive Republican voting pattern. The DLC is touting draft legislation written in part by Lincoln Chaffee (R-RI) who is at odds with the White House on global warming. Expect him to forge an alliance with other down-east Republicans, like Maine GOP-ers Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, and John McCain (R-Ariz.), another global warming hawk, who hasn't yet tired in his campaign for more, more, and more face-time against the President.
It's not that Gore is a proven winner. But on the environment he is the proven champion. And if, maybe, he gains traction by railing against the administration along with McCain, et. al., he becomes a serious contender for the nomination.
On the other hand, Gore may simply be too radioactive, still burning from the loss in 2000 and having actively campaigned in many of the debacles of 2002. In that case, John Kerry (D-Mass.) is sure to emerge as the global warming maven. He's actually more radical (if less versed) on the issue than Gore, and there's a school of thought in Democratic circles these days that says they lost the Senate because they were too much like Republicans. Kerry is no Republican.
All of that makes climate change look like a big issue in the next election cycle, with the flashpoint being current energy legislation. Will it be big enough to determine who runs against George Bush, and will that person stand much of a chance of success? Right now it doesn't look good, but "A" and "B" have been tried, and maybe it's time for "E."