The price of everything, not just driving, is going up in the era of $130-a-barrel oil, but our presidential candidates have a hopelessly thumbless grasp of pocketbook politics.
Their mutual slogan could be "Let them eat abstractions." Barack Obama famously couldn't connect with working-class voters in the primaries, offering them an airy diet of hope and change. John McCain rose on his personal honor, which is why on energy he's fumbling away the GOP's best domestic political opening in years.
For a politician whose forte has never been domestic policy, McCain has a peculiar taste for complex, verging on unworkable, regulatory schemes -- from campaign-finance reform, to comprehensive immigration reform, to a cap-and-trade system limiting carbon emissions.
The attraction for McCain of these plans isn't their intricacies, but their symbolism. Campaign-finance reform demonstrated his incorruptibility; comprehensive immigration reform his belief in an America open to all comers; cap-and-trade his commitment to fight global warming.
These positions were all the more alluring in that they placed McCain in opposition to what he considered the loose ethics, nativism and head-in-the-sand denial of global warming of his own party. They marked him as a bold reformer refusing to compromise himself: Here I stand, I can do no other.
Without this branding, McCain wouldn't have a chance this year. But a gestural politics of personal honor has its limits -- namely that there's very little in it for anyone besides you. McCain's other domestic crusade has been pounding his fellow politicians for giving constituents what they want, but shouldn't get: earmarked spending that isn't justified by the general welfare.
If this is all very admirable, it's not a good fit for the public mood when rising energy prices mean that the average worker's wages are falling. For many families, this is a crisis. Besides a summer holiday from the federal gas tax that would save the average family an estimated $30 this summer, McCain's signature energy initiative -- cap-and-trade -- would increase energy prices.
Live by the gesture, die by the gesture. From there, his position on energy only gets messier. He opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, another position undertaken largely for reasons of self-image -- as the Teddy Roosevelt-style conservationist defending the country's big open spaces.
At a town-hall meeting in Philadelphia, McCain said he could no sooner drill in ANWR than in the Grand Canyon. This is like comparing a roadside flea market to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Five million people a year visit the Grand Canyon, whereas 1,000 visit ANWR. Why would anyone want to go? It's a frozen wasteland during the winter and a mosquito-infested bog during the summer.
McCain opposes drilling off the shores of Florida and California as well, saying that the states should be able to decide. But Alaska desperately wants to drill in ANWR. Its opinion apparently doesn't count. In an interview on the "Today" show, McCain ridiculously held out the prospect that advances in alternative energy might lower the price of gas by November. He's touting fanciful revolutionary breakthroughs within months without acknowledging the real technological advances that make it possible to drill with minimal environmental impact.
McCain calls energy independence a national-security issue, but rules out obtaining here in the U.S. more of the most efficient form of energy readily available. By his own logic, the national-security candidate is putting aesthetic considerations -- the sheer unsightliness of drilling, even though most people will never see it -- over security.
The dirty secret is that, as a believer that global warming is a dangerous crisis, McCain should want gas prices to be high. Obama has been more forthright about this, saying that current prices may make for a "more efficient energy policy," although he would have preferred a more "gradual adjustment" in gas prices. In other words, slow-motion pain at the pump.
The McCain campaign tried to pounce on this, but how can you attack someone for positions you share?