Offshore drilling: Did Rahm Emanuel sell out too soon?

Behind Obama's decision to drill is the same misguided political strategy that came close to killing health reform

By Joe Conason
April 2, 2010 1:02AM (UTC)
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FILE - In this April 29, 2009, file photo, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel speaks during a television interview at the White House. No-drama Obama was bound to get fireworks for choosing the expletive-spewing, hotheaded, never-at-rest Rahm Emanuel to be his White House chief of staff. The only question was when _ and how big. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds, File) (AP)

With President Obama's announcement that he will reopen offshore drilling, in the absence of any reciprocal commitment from Republicans to support carbon caps and alternative energy development, there is now an unmistakable pattern of White House strategy. The drilling decision recapitulates the administration's botched approach to healthcare reform, a tactical style that could most accurately be described as "surrender, then negotiate."

Its most ardent practitioner is chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who was publicly credited by his former House colleague Harold Ford Jr. as the primary author of the drilling plan on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" show that same day. Now chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, Ford noted that he has long favored more offshore drilling -- and that Emanuel has long agreed with him.


But whatever Emanuel's personal opinions, his irrepressible habit of cultivating Republicans while insulting Democrats is not only bad strategy but bad politics. It is a misguided way to negotiate, as the health reform fiasco demonstrated, because forcing the other side to earn concessions is obviously smarter than giving them away at the outset. It is no way to maintain political support (and win elections), because this kind of behavior demoralizes the party base and makes the leader seem weak and unprincipled.

Besides, the premature abandonment of a principled position only encourages the opposition to demand still more. Presumably Obama and Emanuel expected that the drilling concession would push the Republican caucus toward sanity on clean energy and climate change. Instead, their most outspoken ally on the other side, Lindsey Graham, sprayed them with faint praise that sounded a lot like ridicule. Their decision to drill off the Eastern seaboard, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and certain areas off Alaska was nothing more than "baby steps," said the baby-faced senator from South Carolina. Baby steps "in the right direction," he went on, but "not enough."

Yet Graham is on the far edge of his own caucus on climate and energy issues, having been condemned by GOP leaders in his home state for even acknowledging global warming. Right-wing dogma dictates that the only sound policy is drilling everywhere without limits, and damn the environment. "Drill, baby, drill!" as the crazy lady says over and over again. A few other Republicans may join Graham in supporting a cap on carbon someday, and undoubtedly that was the selling point of the grand bargain he proposed last fall to link drilling with carbon regulation. Now Obama and Emanuel have publicly bought into that deal. But why not hold back at least until Graham actually delivers? Evidently they learned nothing from a year of begging Republican votes on healthcare and making deals with corporate interests -- only to find themselves alone with their fellow Democrats at the end.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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