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Dems Need Higher Profile on Energy Reform

by Pete Ross

When President Bush said the U.S. was "addicted to oil" in his state of the union address, many thought it was just a cheap applause line with no follow-up. But yesterday Bush visited a leading producer of hybrid car batteries and energy-saving technology for buildings to preach the gospel of energy independence. (see this article in today's WaPo for a wrap-up) Later in the day, he visited a solar energy plant in Michigan and today he speaks at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory -- clear signals that his party intends to improve its standing with voters who are concerned about rising gas and heating oil prices, our dependency on mideast oil and environmental pollution.

Environmentalists can't be blamed for scoffing at the notion of Bush as champion of energy independence, given Bush's and Cheney's long history as errand boys for big oil. But Democrats should not dismiss the possibility that Bush's p.r. initiatives may have the desired effect, which is to persuade enough voters that the G.O.P is becomming more supportive of energy independence in order to reduce Democratic victories in the November elections.

A look at recent polls goes a long way to explaining Bush's new-found concern about energy independence. For example, a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted 2/1-5, indicates that 55 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of energy policy, with 30 percent approving. Asked if America is "addicted to oil," 85 percent of the respondents agreed and 86 percent supported tougher fuel efficiency standards for cars, truck and SUV's. The poll also indicated that 68 percent of Americans want a greater investment in developing mass rail and bus transit systems.

Because Bush and the Republicans have refused to support stricter CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards or a significant investment in mass transit development, Dems are in good position to call the GOP's bluff. Most Democrats have a solid record of support of these two reforms and this difference should be strongly highlighted in every congressional campaign.

In the months ahead, Democratic candidates should emphasize how the Administration and Republican congressional majority have blocked CAFE reforms and mass transit investment at every opportunity. With this commitment, Bush's p.r. intitiative will backfire and Dems will gain a sharper edge in November.