The President has just achieved the top item on his agenda—his big tax cut. But the President's job is to address the top problem on the American people's agenda. It's gasoline prices, not taxes. "Energy" topped the list in last month's CNN-Time magazine poll, when people were asked to identify the nation's biggest problem. Three times as many named energy as named taxes.
President Bush hasn't really proposed any immediate solution to the energy problem, except for his tax cut. But even if people get a tax rebate check this summer, they're still going to be upset if they have to pay $3 a gallon for gasoline: "You mean the government is giving me money so I can turn it over to the oil companies?"
A President gets in trouble if people think he's paying more attention to his agenda than to their agenda. That holds true for opposition Democrats as well as for the President. By controlling the Senate, Democrats now have a seat at the table. And the energy issue could be their meal ticket.
In Chinese, the word for crisis is the same as the word for opportunity. The Bush Administration certainly sees an opportunity in the California energy crisis—an opportunity to say: "We told you so." Vice President Dick Cheney said on May 25: "If I were to be critical of California, it would be that they didn't address [the energy problem] soon enough, that they knew a year ago they had problems and they postponed taking action because all of the action was potentially unpleasant."
The Administration also sees the energy crisis as an opportunity to score points for free markets and to send a message about the need for new production. "The energy plan I lay out for the nation harnesses the power of modern markets," Bush said in St. Paul, Minn. "The problems in California show that you cannot conserve your way to energy independence," he said in Pennsylvania.
For the Bush Administration, the energy problem is an opportunity to teach the country an economics lesson. Fair enough. But the issue may give Democrats an even greater opportunity, because politics is a short-term business. The crisis is now. People want help now. Giving people immediate help is becoming the Democrats' mantra. House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri: "This is a short-term problem. It needs a short-term solution." Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif.: "We understand long-term in California, and we understand short-term.... My constituents need price relief."
Does Bush's plan offer any short-term relief from soaring energy prices? The American people don't see it. In a Gallup Poll taken last month, nearly two-thirds of respondents said that Bush's energy plan will help, but only after several years. Only 11 percent anticipated any immediate relief.
What kind of immediate relief do Democrats want? Price controls. "Oh no," says the Bush Administration. "That will just make the problem worse." In the long run, that may be true, but the problem is now. "I am not for price controls over the long haul," California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, said on May 29. "But we had them in place for three months last fall. They were working fine. There were no blackouts until the caps were lifted." Davis added mischievously: "Texas this year adopted price relief until 2003. We're just asking to be treated as well as Texas."
Other than conservatives and Republicans, is there any constituency for Bush's energy plan? Yes, there's a powerful, heavily armored constituency, whose way of life is threatened.
In April, Cheney said that, under the Bush plan, Americans can save energy without sacrificing their standard of living. That was good news for Americans whose standard of living involves driving their families around the suburbs in what look like armored personnel carriers. They are the downtrodden and despised minority who own sport-utility vehicles and who are panicked over the prospect of paying as much as $3 dollars a gallon for gasoline to fuel vehicles that get only slightly better gas mileage than a 747.
According to the CNN-Time poll, SUV owners have found their cause. Fifty percent of SUV owners said they favored the Bush energy plan, compared with 35 percent of non-SUV owners. When Bush and Cheney argue that there is no way Americans can conserve their way out of this energy problem, SUV owners say: "We hear you." For them, the answer is more gas. Drill we must.
Twenty percent of Americans have an SUV in their household. That's a big constituency, with big cars. Sure, they're wealthier than other Americans. Almost half of SUV owners have incomes over $50,000 a year, compared with just over a quarter of non-SUV owners.
But it's not just income that drives their politics. High-income SUV owners are crazy about the Bush energy plan—61 percent favor it. But among high-income Americans who don't own an SUV, support for the energy plan is 20 percentage points lower. The same holds true for lower-income Americans: Those who own SUVs are much more likely to support the President's energy plan than those who don't. We'll find more gas for you, the President is saying. You won't have to endure the humiliation—or risk—of driving your kids around in a compact.
SUV owners are the new soccer moms. They're President Bush's armored division in the energy wars. After all, a man's car is his castle.