The offshore drilling movement seems silly, but could it spark a smarter movement?
“I taught in the second Earth Day,” Newt Gingrich recalled in Real Change, published in January, the most recent of his annual, not-quite-consistent handbooks for conservatives. As gas prices hovered around $3 per gallon, Gingrich told good men of either party to look at tax credits for companies that curb their pollution, or for homeowners who slap solar panels on their roofs, or for drivers who get rid of their gas-guzzlers. The former speaker of the House made a soft-focus ad for Al Gore’s WE campaign, sharing a weather-exposed sofa with Nancy Pelosi, fretting about our oh-so-fragile climate. “We have an obligation to be good stewards of God’s creation for future generations,” Gingrich wrote.
Gingrich had one more idea about energy independence, tossed into his book like an afterthought. “With appropriate safeguards to protect the environment,” he wrote, “we can build more refineries and drill oil offshore to lower the cost of gas and reduce dependence on foreign oil.” A 33 percent gas price spike later, that’s all Gingrich wants to talk about. Offshore drilling has grown from one part of an earth-hugging energy plan to a panacea for gas prices. His leadership group, American Solutions for Winning the Future, hit on a slogan for cutting energy costs: “Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less.”
It worked. On August 1, the majority party adjourned for five weeks, delaying a decision on legalizing new drilling or (more likely) expanding tax credits until September, when the 1990 ban on offshore drilling will expire. Republicans erupted, giving speeches to an empty (and dark) chamber demanding that they stick around until the ban could be repealed. Arizona Rep. John Shadegg “started typing random codes into the chamber’s public address system and accidentally typed the correct code, allowing Republicans brief access to the microphone before it was turned off again.”
Suddenly, the GOP had a message that made Democrats quiver. “They refuse to let us drill here, drill now, and pay less for gasoline,” says endangered Rep. Randy Kuhl (R-NY) in a new ad. “We need to drill here and we need to drill now,” says longtime anti-ANWR drilling advocate John McCain, flicking the pesky ghost of Teddy Roosevelt off his shoulder.
But what’s been more interesting is the spontaneous order that’s sprung up to support the GOP’s newfound drill-here-drill-now dogma. Because of technical limitations (no cameras are allowed on the House floor), Republican members and their supporters recorded their progress with text messages and Twitter.com. That was the impetus for supporters far outside D.C. to get organized. “I had been following Culberson and [Heritage Foundation web wizard] Rob Bluey on Twitter and was getting overwhelmed,” said Chicago media consultant Eric Odom. “I started a hash tag, #dontgo, to follow the updates.” Voila: #dontgo took off like a V-2 rocket, spawning a website that drew 10,000 members and tens of thousands of hits within 24 hours.
And then…well, not much. I was out of town for the hottest week of the #dontgo protest, as doughty congressman after doughty congressman took to the House floor to demand a MacArthur-like return from Nancy Pelosi. It peaked on August 6, when Gingrich airlifted himself onto the Hill to praise the movement he’d sort of created. But when I arrived on the Hill this Tuesday, the movement was already dying down. One member was standing vigil; Democratic staffers and tourists didn’t realize the protest was still going on.
I asked a conservative think-tanker who’d been toiling over drill-here-drill-now messaging what, exactly, had happened. “Nancy caved,” he said. He was referring to Pelosi’s statement on CNN that she might allow a vote on drilling after all.
But was that a real victory, or just cagey Democratic politics? Pelosi has been telling Democrats to come out for offshore drilling if it will help them win their races, and the candidates have followed suit. The think-tanker nodded. “We don’t want to get everything this year,” he said. “We want an issue. The Democrats do something this year, just enough to protect their incumbents. They take over next year, and it’s an issue again next year, and in 2010, because they’re never going to do anything serious.”
The rest of the week only strengthened the sense of inertia about this movement: It had risen fast and then plateaued. “They’re not doing anything new,” GOP web consultant David All told me. “It feels like it’s slowed down.”
That was inevitable. It’s hard to keep anger up about high gas prices when they’re heading slightly downhill. In the past few weeks, as Pacific Research Institute scholar Tom Tanton points out, the dollar has strengthened against the Euro. Crude oil demand has plummeted, the biggest decline since the recession year of 1982. And future traders are already expecting Congress to soften up laws against oil exploration. The House protest–and Gingrich’s triumphant messaging–had some impact, but that’s already been priced in. “The ban’s going to expire if Congress simply does nothing,” Tanton says.
All of this–– the opportunistic Gingrich slogan work (he’s running a “drill here, drill now, pay nothing!” contest), the Republican gamesmanship–has opened up #dontgo to mockery from the liberal blogs. “They call us ‘twitiots,’ Odom sighs. But I can see #dontgo, or its moveable parts, succeeding despite their origins. David All, who thinks the momentum has tapped out, points out that his fellow Gen X and Y tech consultants–Heritage’s Bluey, Patrick Ruffini–had collaborated for the first time. Odom, a Republican who voted for Ron Paul in the primaries and supports Bob Barr in the general election, is lining up new targets for his website and mailing list. One of them is T. Boone Pickens, the Texas billionaire currently flooding your airwaves with ads about America’s wind corridor and the need to get off foreign oil. (Go flick on the TV and wait a bit. You’ll see it.)
“I’m very skeptical of the T. Boone scheme,” Odom says. “It’s one thing to solve this problem by opening up new markets, like new areas for drilling. It’s quite another to lobby, as Pickens is doing, for tax incentives and public money to fund a pet project.” Speaker Pelosi, after all, holds shares in Pickens’ company Clean Energy. California’s Proposition 10, which she supports, would pour $5 billion into wind farms. It’s the sort of rent-seeking that’s awfully easy to sell politically. Evidence? Just look back at the pleasant-sounding tax incentives that Gingrich was pushing eight months ago, in his previous attempt at Republican branding.
The grassroots members of the movement aren’t growing wildly at the moment: Odom says his list has added 5,000 members in the week since the initial burst. But they aren’t as easily guided or bought. Odom wants #dontgo to be part of something as roiling and proactive as MoveOn.org (complete with dated name–”Yes, I understand the irony of a conservative cause that tells Congress not to go home”), focusing on earmarks, or entitlement spending. David All, the consultant who was skeptical about the House protest side of the movement, told me the same thing: The movement can grow it if it seeks out new political territory.
A populist small-government movement that sticks to principles instead of easy messaging, fads, and the whims of donors? Maybe here, maybe now.
David Weigel is an associate editor of reason.