Emerson, Palin and the politics of energy

Friday, January 4, 2008

At last week's Cape Girardeau Area Chamber of Commerce First Friday Coffee, U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson pivoted her prepared remarks neatly from agriculture policy to energy.

The importance of developing alternative power sources was stressed: wind, hydro, nuclear, even ethanol derived from algae. But the need to drill for oil in areas of the United States currently off-limits was her central theme.

No matter the source, achieving energy independence from nations inclined to oppose America ¬-- Russia, Iran, Venezuela and the list goes on ¬-- was underlined as critical to America's well-being.

Peppered with a question by a local businessman about his kids who like national wildlife areas as they are, Emerson placed her faith in "technology" allowing oil exploration with a small footprint. "The technology has changed dramatically from what it was even 20 to 30 years ago," she said.

She could have also made the point that not all areas currently off-limits for drilling are desirable places for backpacking and sightseeing: drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), for example.

With the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket, ANWR promises to be an issue in the presidential campaign. Palin has supported drilling in ANWR. "Of the 20 million acres up there, we're looking at 2,000 acres as a footprint. Smaller than LAX (Los Angeles International Airport). With new technology, with directional drilling, maybe that footprint [will] shrink even more."

Both John McCain and Barack Obama have voiced opposition to drilling in ANWR, although McCain has recently suggested he's open to new information.

Energy is already a big issue in this year's national political campaign. Along with the hot topic of health care costs, gasoline prices impact everyone on a daily basis ¬-- directly through consumer gas purchases or indirectly through higher energy-related production and distribution costs. Perhaps that's the reason "Drill, baby, drill" was a chant heard throughout the Republican convention.

On my way back to the office from the chamber event, an independent political pollster on the radio talked about the most effective TV ad of the long political season. "It wasn't the 'Who do you want to answer the phone in the White House at 3 o'clock in the morning' ad," he said. Nor was it any of Senator McCain's recent ads poking at Senator Obama's "celebrity."

"Both of those ads got a lot of positive spin in the press, largely because they came out just as other factors were changing the election." The most influential ad, according to this analyst's tracking methodology, has been McCain's ad touting the need for more oil drilling. "That ad moved the needle in our tests more than any other."

Perhaps Emerson's nonpartisan talk about agricultural and energy issues carried more of a political message than most people realized.


Emerson is a savvy politician and an engaging speaker. Known to be a bit of a maverick herself, she brings an arsenal of facts to her discussion of the issues. At the chamber breakfast, she was also asked to evaluate the convention speeches by the candidates in both parties. Seeking to avoid being political, she said nice things about each (although Joe Biden's convention speech wasn't one she saw). But she recounted a phone call from her daughter, Tori, who was at the Republican convention, about Palin's address: "Tori said she had never seen someone so comfortable giving such a big speech."

I would agree with Tori. Palin nailed the speech with a rare confidence and grace. If she performs as well in the vice presidential debate and throughout the campaign, she will be a political force in America for a long time, whether McCain is elected or not. And the post-convention bounce for the Republicans, pushing them above Obama-Biden for the first time in the daily polling, indicates that her presence is already playing a significant role this year.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications. E-mail: jrust@semissourian.com.

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