Dr. Mobil & Mr. Shell

Overjoyed by the chance to portray Cheney & Bush as Big Oil fat cats, Democrats pour gasoline over the president's energy plan.

By Jake Tapper

Published May 17, 2001 7:42PM (EDT)

The Bush administration isn't scheduled to introduce its energy policy until Thursday, but that hasn't stopped Democrats and environmentalists from denouncing it as "of, by and for the energy industry," in the words of House Minority Leader Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. A dozen or so other House Democrats joined Gephardt, who held a press conference Wednesday morning to eviscerate the White House's pending energy policy announcement. Other Democratic leaders followed with their own press conferences harping away on the same subject, in a virtual full-court press.

The Dems acknowledged that since the task force that wrote the plan did so in secret, none of them really had any idea what President Bush would be formally introducing in Iowa on Thursday.

Considering this, wasn't their assault a bit premature?

"We can criticize the process," said Rep. Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who serves as minority leader on the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the environment. Bush's energy task force largely conducted itself in secret, and essentially shut out House and Senate Democrats; environmentalists got only perfunctory meetings with low-level staffers. Besides, Waxman added, "we've gotten an idea of what's going to be in the plan through various statements that the president and vice president have made. Vice President Cheney may have tipped us off when he said that conservation wasn't the solution to the energy crisis."

It's no secret why the Dems are aggressively bashing a plan they haven't even seen. They think that they've finally hit political paydirt.

The Dems believe the Bush White House, already hurting because of its ties to the oil industry, has badly bungled the public-relations aspect of its energy campaign.

Cheney's much-criticized remark about conservation (he sneeringly referred to conservationists as practicing "personal virtue"), combined with a number of other P.R. gaffes -- the clandestine energy task force meetings, some insensitive and ill-informed comments from Cheney about California's problems, Bush's insistence on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the arsenic-in-drinking-water flap -- has Democrats smiling for the first time since the Gore-Lieberman riverboat ride last summer.

Rep. Christopher Shays, a moderate Republican from Connecticut, is only too familiar with this territory. On April 4, Shays was one of a handful of GOP moderates who met with Cheney to tell him that "the environment is the one area you aren't handling well." Shays says that the energy/environment issue is "the area where the White House is most out of step with the American people." And he's not surprised that Democrats have jumped all over it: "They've taken a weakness of the administration and made it seem like a gaping hole. They're going crazy on this issue. And it's working."

But Shays thinks Democrats have at times been irresponsible in the way they've exploited the issue: "Just by the mere fact that both the president and the vice president have relationships with the oil industry, Democrats can demagogue that."

Not that Bush and Cheney aren't helping the Democrats in their task. On May 10, Cheney told USA Today that "there's not much we can do in the short term" about the energy crisis -- a claim immediately rejected by Democratic officials, who pointed to their own favored solutions: immediate pressure on OPEC for more fuel, the imposition of price limitations in areas where energy costs are skyrocketing and investigations into accusations of overcharging by energy companies.

"Vice President Cheney is a little too obvious for this administration!" effused Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., at the Wednesday press conference. DeFazio said he spoke to Cheney about the energy crisis, making some points he thought were salient, "and he didn't listen or respond."

Each speaker stood next to a poster titled "The Bush-Cheney Energy Team," which illustrated the myriad members of the administration -- from Bush, Cheney and Commerce Secretary Don Evans down to various undersecretaries -- who have been associated with the corporate energy powers Democrats are currently demonizing.

The White House, in response, took the high, aggrieved road. "One of the reasons we haven't had an energy plan in the past is because of these kinds of personal attacks," responded White House spokesman Jimmy Orr. "The president's approach is not to demonize his opponent and question his motives. It's to work together with all members of Congress, and to establish a national energy policy."

Yeah, whatever, said a senior Democratic staffer, motioning toward a dozen TV cameras outside the House side of the Capitol. "This is the first time we've gotten some traction," the aide said. "This is the first time Bush is struggling."

The Dems plan to hammer Bush on energy at least through Memorial Day weekend, with one major message, according to a Democratic National Committee senior staffer: "They're for the oil companies; we're for the American people."

"The oil companies that put Bush and Cheney there -- Exxon, Enron, Reliant -- have record profits right now," the staffer said. "And that's not a coincidence."

By making it personal, Democrats have tried to paint the pending policy from Bush, a former Texas oilman (albeit an unsuccessful one), and Cheney, former CEO of a company that produces oil refinery equipment, as corporate Cro-Magnon-ism, two oilmen taking advantage of an energy crisis caused by their corporate buddies to justify environmental plundering. And the charge seems to have stuck, to some degree. In an early May poll, ABC News found that a plurality of Americans, 43 percent, did not have confidence in Bush's handling of the energy crisis; 39 percent did.

Bush's seemingly lackadaisical approach has not helped matters. "The president seems almost totally indifferent, removed from the whole process," Gephardt said Wednesday, pointing out that Bush has not even visited California, Oregon or Washington -- the three states most immediately affected by the crisis.

In Bush's most recent comment on the energy crisis, at his May 11 press conference, he urged passage of his $1.3 trillion tax cut bill "to give people more of their own money so they can meet the bills, so they can meet the high energy prices."

But to Democrats, this comment only poured more $2.49-a-gallon gas on the fire. "It's clear that Bush's tax cut is nothing more than a pipeline of profits from the White House to the special interests who put him in office," DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe said at a Wednesday afternoon press conference where he reintroduced a campaign-era special anti-GOP Web site on this issue. "The $100 billion in economic stimulus Bush is proposing for next year could be swamped by as much as $130 billion in higher gas prices," McAuliffe said. "So all the money you supposedly save with the tax cut goes right into the pockets of the oil companies!"

Although he sides with his Democratic colleagues on many energy and environmental issues, Shays says that most of their current rhetoric is mere Bush-bashing, not a responsible attempt to come up with answers.

"It's hard for me to hear the sanctimonious comments of some of my Democratic colleagues who, like me, were silent on this energy crisis for eight years," he says. "They act like they've been advocating for change for years. They helped create this problem, as did I. I just don't have the chutzpah to now attack someone who's gonna try to deal with it."

But attack away the Democrats do. Waxman brandished a gallon of milk, saying that if milk prices had increased as power prices had in the last week in California, the gallon of milk would be retailing for $200. Then he rhetorically asked what the president would do "if big dairy farms were tripling their profits" and there were "indications some of the dairy farms were withholding supplies of milk to drive their prices up."

"Western families think they're being robbed by energy suppliers," he said. "And you know what? They're right ... So why do we hear the president say that the solution to the problem is tax cuts?"

"The Bush approach" to this issue, bellowed House Minority Whip Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., has been "shortsighted, foolish and outright destructive."

Allen Mattison, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, says "this is just as much a policy problem for the White House as it is a P.R. problem." Mattison cites the ABC News poll that indicates Americans support conservation over a two-pronged approach focused on further digging for fossil fuels and increased nuclear power production, 56 percent to 35 percent.

Shays says that a sound energy policy would address increasing supply, an area of Bush strength, as well as slowing the growth of consumption, where Democrats are stronger. "I've told the White House, 'If you don't have a good dose of slowing the growth of consumption in there, you and we are gonna get killed.' They say it's gonna be in there. And we're holding our breath ... But it's not enough that it be in there, they've gotta emphasize it."

The White House just this week seems to have realized that it has an image problem. In talking points sent from the Bush White House to GOP members of Congress on Wednesday, Republican officeholders were told to push "a forward-looking and comprehensive national energy plan that promotes conservation, increases energy supplies and protects the environment."

"In order to meet the goals the President put forward, we must utilize the most advanced technologies to increase efficient energy use," the Bush White House talking points continue. "We see this with cars in increased fuel efficiency and refrigerators that use 1/3 as much electricity. And, because of the advancements in technology our economy has grown and we remain one of the cleanest countries on this planet. We will further this progress and strengthen our commitment to energy efficiency and conservation."

Additionally, after House Democrats trotted out their energy plan on Tuesday, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer had no shortage of kind words for it, saying there were "several interesting overlaps between the Democrat plan and the president's plan ... The Democrat plan, just like the one the president will offer, promotes efficiency, conservation and renewables." Bush himself will be rolling out his plan Thursday and Friday in front of what the Sierra Club refers to as "relatively environmentally friendly power and energy research plants" in Iowa, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

Erik Smith, communications director for Gephardt, said that the issue has been effective for Democrats, since Americans understand fuel and energy prices on a day-to-day basis, and not merely in a once-a-year tax-cut kind of way. Additionally, Smith said, Bush and his team "miscalculated by not appearing to do anything about" the crisis.

Other than an oblique reference in its Tuesday plan to "improving the fuel efficiency of SUVs, light trucks and minivans," House Democrats avoided any real call for Americans to take steps to combat larger issues -- like the fact that Americans, who make up 4 percent of the world's population, consume more than 40 percent of the world's gasoline.

"We're not asking for sacrifice," Gephardt said. "The present energy policy of the Bush administration has done that in graphic terms."

"Of course they're asking for sacrifice," Shays says, "as they should be doing. They are asking for sacrifice, unless you redefine the word 'sacrifice.' We have been reckless for the last few years ... If the White House and Congress manage to pass an energy bill that does, in fact, include some measures that require Americans to lower the proverbial thermostat -- or, more likely, lessen the power of an SUV to make it fuel efficient -- it will be a sacrifice, but it's worth it."

Shays is disappointed by Democrats demanding a more environmentally friendly energy proposal but refusing to acknowledge that some sacrifice may be necessary by the American people as well. "They're loving the opportunity to be totally irresponsible," he says. "They don't have to make government work."

Gephardt spokesman Smith doesn't have to deal with such matters. "They've lost the P.R. battle on this already."

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Democratic Party Dick Cheney Energy