'It's the Economy [Not the Climate], Stupid!'

Media’s Presidential Endorsements
Offer Insights into Wanted Next Steps

Newspaper endorsements in a presidential election reveal more than where the nation has been or where it is now. They point the way toward a national agenda for the future.

By that measure, most American newspapers saw little room on the next president’s “To Do List” for action on the climate issue. Perhaps it’s not surprising, given the recession and world financial crisis, grinding wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a broken health care system, and continuing worries about public education and U.S. competitiveness.

“The economy was the issue,” CBS News business correspondent Anthony Mason said in a morning broadcast the day after the election.

Jon Krosnick, a political scientist at Stanford University who studies voting behavior, said exit polls last week confirmed that the climate issue had little impact at the polls – and that fact was generally reflected among newspaper opinion makers.

The climate issue “was really minimal,” Krosnick said.

If the newspaper endorsements collectively pointed in any direction, it was for Obama. Editor & Publisher‘s tally of newspaper endorsements on Election Day counted 281 endorsements for Barack Obama and 149 for John McCain – a nearly two to one margin.

Nevertheless, a review of newspaper endorsements around the country hinted at some differences in how the climate issue is viewed, in different parts of the country and by Republicans and Democrats.

Some endorsements for McCain hammered Obama for not embracing nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels to the extent that McCain did during the campaign. Some endorsements for Obama argued that McCain betrayed his previous leadership on reducing greenhouse gas emissions when he joined the Republican chorus “Drill, baby, drill!”

While both candidates had expressed support for offshore oil drilling – although with different levels of enthusiasm – some newspaper endorsements for McCain echoed widespread support by Americans for expanding offshore drilling. That support peaked when gas prices soared last summer and the economic crisis worsened in September, Krosnick said. And it didn’t seem to matter that expanding drilling today won’t have an impact on domestic gas prices, if at all, for years.

So, as he attempts to diversify America’s sources of energy, President-Elect Obama will almost certainly face sustained pressure to expand domestic oil production.

He’ll also have to deal with some hard realities about how the public views alternative sources of energy. The Las Vegas Review Journal endorsement of McCain, noted below, chastised Obama as one “who falls in line behind the greens and advocates a radical and massively expensive economic upheaval in order to build more windmills and solar panels.”

“Americans are actually not at all that hot on solar and wind” as alternative sources of energy, Krosnick said. “Polls show not a lot of support.”

The Stanford professor pointed to a simple reason for that: most coal production today is severely polluting but inexpensive. Solar and wind power, in contrast, offer a much cleaner alternative, but both those sources are more expensive.

“There’s no doubt there’s some issues there,” Krosnick said. “There are some clear challenges” as an Obama administration moves forward on promoting alternative energy sources.

Here are a few passages from endorsements in which the climate issue grabbed more than a mention:

A sampling of newspaper endorsements for Obama

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

…We see considerable hope for the country, especially the Pacific Northwest, in Obama’s energy and environmental policies. He’s shown the kind of focus and vision that will be needed to treat energy independence as both a new opportunity and overriding challenge, along the lines of John F. Kennedy’s leadership on putting an American on the moon.

Creating a clean-energy economy will be a first step to putting America’s leadership on behalf of democracy and human rights in the world on a firmer footing ….

The New York Times

… [McCain] surrendered his standing as an independent thinker in his rush to embrace Mr. Bush’s misbegotten tax policies and to abandon his leadership position on climate change and immigration reform. Mr. McCain could have seized the high ground on energy and the environment. Earlier in his career, he offered the first plausible bill to control America’s emissions of greenhouse gases. Now his positions are a caricature of that record: think Ms. Palin leading chants of ‘drill, baby, drill.’ Mr. Obama has endorsed some offshore drilling, but as part of a comprehensive strategy including big investments in new, clean technologies ….

The Boston Globe

… As fossil fuels become scarcer, and the ecological damage more evident, Americans can put up windmills and solar panels and drive more efficient cars …. Meanwhile, as the planet gets warmer, its top energy consumer has no plan to wean itself from fossil fuels ….

Newsday

… Obama demonstrated a noteworthy, clear-eyed approach to this issue last summer, when gas prices skyrocketed. As McCain and others called for a popular, temporary suspension of the federal gas tax, Obama resisted the urge to pander. His view – that trying to ease the pain of price hikes wouldn’t work and would retard efforts to wean the nation off fossil fuels – wasn’t popular. But he was right. And he was willing to take the political heat to advance the nation’s long-term interest.

Obama understands the urgency of making the country less dependent on foreign oil, for both economic and national security reasons. He supports an all-out effort to develop sustainable, alternative fuels and green technology. He has also acknowledged the need to expand the use of nuclear power, and has reluctantly come to accept the need to drill more for oil here at home. McCain also supports developing alternative fuels and technology and expanding the use of nuclear power. And he says that the push for energy independence should proceed on all fronts. But he elevated increased domestic drilling to the top of his energy agenda when he made ‘drill baby drill’ a campaign slogan, even though more domestic drilling won’t do much to lower gas prices or anything to advance the key goal of energy independence ….

Kansas City Star

… Obama wants to boost renewable energy and encourage more efficient vehicles, buildings and appliances. He doesn’t back excessive offshore oil drilling or a rush to build nuclear plants ….

Seattle Times

… The energy crisis is zapping our economic well-being. What does McCain want to do? “Drill, baby, drill,” to quote the mindless chant at the Republican National Convention. That is not an energy policy. It is a cheap, shortsighted slogan. Obama has a coherent plan that includes some drilling, as a stopgap, but he looks to a mix of renewable resources. He is more likely to move America off its dependence on foreign oil. McCain has been in office for 26 years and done little to change this dynamic….

The Fresno Bee

… McCain’s support for energy independence has lately devolved into the mantra, “Drill, baby, drill,” which is often a crowd pleaser, but doesn’t match Obama’s broader and more nuanced goal of promoting cleaner alternatives to oil. Obama understands that reducing our dependence on foreign oil, though eminently desirable, is not enough by itself. We need to reduce our dependence on oil from any source, because burning fossil fuels ravages the environment and is the principal cause of global climate change ….

Houston Chronicle

… At home affordable health care is unavailable to millions of citizens while measures to achieve energy independence and combat global warming sit on the legislative back burner …. One weakness Obama has shown is a tendency to demonize the energy industry, which will be an indispensable ally in developing alternative fuel sources in the future. He would do well to rethink some of his positions and apply his consensus-building skills to an essential bulwark of the Texas economy ….

The Star-Ledger (NJ)

… Both McCain and Obama tout greater energy independence, but they would achieve this differently. Domestic drilling is the chief distinction. Obama wants to enact stricter fuel economy standards and put at least 1 million advanced hybrid vehicles on the road by 2015. He favors only limited new domestic drilling for oil. McCain – and his running mate – are more supportive of domestic oil and natural gas drilling. McCain wants to offer a $300 million prize to improve electric-vehicle batteries, and he supports using $2 billion a year to push research and development of clean coal technology ….

Buffalo News

… Obama and McCain once shared a concern for the global environment and rejected quick-and-dirty fixes such as wholesale offshore drilling. While Obama has changed a bit on that as energy issues intensified during the campaign, McCain has gone completely into the grip of the oil giants and the shortsighted ….

A sampling of newspaper endorsements for McCain

New York Post

… On the economic issue most vexing Americans today – energy prices – McCain is aggressive. He is a strong convert to offshore drilling: “We have trillions of dollars’ worth of oil and gas reserves in the US at a time we are exporting hundreds of billions of dollars a year overseas to buy energy.” He also strongly backs nuclear power – a carbon-free form of energy that America can produce relatively cheaply. Obama, meanwhile, hews to the Democratic Party line on energy: no nukes, no drilling and no comprehension of the consequences of such policies ….

Las Vegas Review Journal

… On energy, Sen. McCain – while acknowledging the importance of developing alternative sources – understands that for the foreseeable future the nation must continue to harness its domestic supplies of clean coal and oil. This is in stark contrast to Sen. Obama, who falls in line behind the greens and advocates a radical and massively expensive economic upheaval in order to build more windmills and solar panels ….

Tulsa World

… The greatest single challenge facing the United States at this point is freeing itself from its dependence on foreign oil, and only McCain has wholeheartedly and consistently backed the “all of the above” strategy: more domestic drilling, more nuclear energy, more wind power, more everything. Obama has been slow to back broad domestic energy and hedges on nuclear energy. Break the nation’s foreign oil addiction and you solve most of its long-term economic problems. Fail to do so and little else you try will matter. McCain’s plan is the most aggressive and the one most likely to succeed ….

A few other endorsements, while not from daily newspapers, are worth mentioning. Among them:

The New Yorker

… On energy and global warming, Obama offers a set of forceful proposals. He supports a cap-and-trade program to reduce America’s carbon emissions by eighty per cent by 2050 – an enormously ambitious goal, but one that many climate scientists say must be met if atmospheric carbon dioxide is to be kept below disastrous levels. Large emitters, like utilities, would acquire carbon allowances, and those which emit less carbon dioxide than their allotment could sell the resulting credits to those which emit more; over time, the available allowances would decline. Significantly, Obama wants to auction off the allowances; this would provide fifteen billion dollars a year for developing alternative-energy sources and creating job-training programs in green technologies. He also wants to raise federal fuel-economy standards and to require that ten per cent of America’s electricity be generated from renewable sources by 2012. Taken together, his proposals represent the most coherent and far-sighted strategy ever offered by a Presidential candidate for reducing the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels.

There was once reason to hope that McCain and Obama would have a sensible debate about energy and climate policy. McCain was one of the first Republicans in the Senate to support federal limits on carbon dioxide, and he has touted his own support for a less ambitious cap-and-trade program as evidence of his independence from the White House. But, as polls showed Americans growing jittery about gasoline prices, McCain apparently found it expedient in this area, too, to shift course. He took a dubious idea—lifting the federal moratorium on offshore oil drilling – and placed it at the very center of his campaign. Opening up America’s coastal waters to drilling would have no impact on gasoline prices in the short term, and, even over the long term, the effect, according to a recent analysis by the Department of Energy, would be “insignificant.” Such inconvenient facts, however, are waved away by a campaign that finally found its voice with the slogan “Drill, baby, drill!” …

Rolling Stone

… A new president must heal these divides, must at long last face the hypocrisy and inequity of unprecedented government handouts to oil giants, hedge-fund barons, agriculture combines and drug companies. At the same time, the new president must transform our lethal energy economy – replacing oil and coal and the ethanol fraud with green alternatives and strict rain-forest preservation and tough international standards – before the planet becomes inhospitable for most human life. Although Obama has been slow to address global warming, I feel confident that his intelligence and morality will lead him clearly on this issue ….

Nature

… McCain deserves particular credit for taking a stance on carbon emissions that is at odds with that of a significant proportion of his party …. Some of the policies Obama supports – continued subsidies for corn ethanol, for example – seem misguided ….

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman is a freelance writer covering science and environmental topics. He has more than 20 years experience in the news business. (E-mail: bruce@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @brucelieberman1)
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