Analysis: Congress And The Cost Of Energy

Even though members of the House and Senate are on their summer recess, a group of House Republicans plans to hold meetings to discuss the issue of energy. With gasoline prices remaining at all-time highs, it is the top issue voters are talking about.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some of the lawmaker who lived through the anthrax attacks are still in Congress today, and they're working in a very different political landscape. The price of energy was not a huge issue in 2001, but it sure is now. And some Republicans in Congress think they can turn that into a campaign issue this November.

NPR's Cokie Roberts is here now to talk about that. She joins us most Mondays for analysis. Good morning, Cokie.

COKIE ROBERTS: Hi, Steve. Welcome back.

INSKEEP: Thank you. Delighted to be back. Delighted to be talking with you. I guess saying that energy is a big issue is pretty obvious, but actually turning it to a politician's advantage might be something else.

ROBERTS: Well, that's true. A rump group of Republicans is talking about coming back to Washington, even though they're on recess and having a, quote-unquote, "special session" - it wouldn't be a real session - to talk about it. And after the House adjourned last week, voted to recess, they staged something of a protest in the House chamber. Because the Republicans think this is an issue that can work for them and they're short on issues that are working for them.

But the Democrats were out over the weekend with new talking points, saying that Republicans are in the pocket of big oil, that they want tax breaks for the companies, like Exxon, making record profits. And you can expect campaign ads to that effect soon. It's - look, it's - Steve, it's always easy when Democrats say that Republicans are cozy with business. That's always an easy sell for them. And on the one issue where the Republican issue was the popular one, which is the issue of offshore drilling, Barack Obama now says he'd be willing to consider that as part of an energy package. So he's blunted that one as well.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Although does that give Republicans an opportunity to paint another Democratic presidential candidate as a flip-flopper?

ROBERTS: Sure, but you know, both campaigns have been hit with that charge so far this year, and it doesn't really much matter. Look, here's where we are in this campaign right now. All this business about the McCain ads with Paris Hilton and the Internet ad he has with Charlton Heston as Moses are attempts to define Barack Obama before the people are clear who he is, and really, it's McCain's only shot. He can't win on the issues or on party I.D. this year. The Republicans are behind on almost all of those things. And so he's got to win on the question of gut-check, which is how people vote for president. Do you trust this guy? Is his character one you feel comfortable with? Is his judgment one you feel comfortable with?

And so it's worth it to McCain to take whatever shots that he's taken this week - that his campaign is not the campaign he promised to run, that he's taking the low road, all of that - because he had to try to shout out over the media coverage of Barack Obama. This is the moment when voters are unsettled. Once you get through the conventions and the glossy presentation of the candidates, it becomes much harder. So that's what McCain is doing. He's trying to raise your doubts about Barack Obama and so far, it's working. Obama continues to run well behind the Democratic Party in the tracking polls.

INSKEEP: So if McCain is running these ads that you mentioned, that basically paint Obama as a celebrity, somebody who's famous but not serious, I guess, what is Obama doing to counter that?

ROBERTS: Well, today he's celebrating his 47th birthday.

INSKEEP: Oh.

ROBERTS: He's giving a speech in Lansing, Michigan, on energy, and traveling through battleground states before his vacation. But what his campaign is doing is kind of the flip side of this McCain business, which is that it's sort of below the radar organizing veterans groups and labor, people who might find McCain appealing, to say, look, he's a great guy and we really respect his war record and his service, but his record in the Senate is what we're concerned about, and they're saying it's anti-veteran, anti-labor, etc., and go after the issues, not the man, and scare people to death in those groups about what McCain would do once he was in the White House. So it's really exactly the opposite of what McCain is doing.

INSKEEP: Okay, thanks very much. That's NPR's Cokie Roberts, who joins us on Monday mornings, making the news make a little more sense.

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