Energy In The Executive

John McCain, for once, is sticking to a theme, and that appears to be a step in the right direction for a campaign who might have otherwise been subjected to lessons in object permanence. For the second week in a row, he's talking about energy security and the environment. Last week's news focused on McCain's newly-found support for off-shore oil exploration; (an irony: had Charlie Crist not flip-flopped, the coverage in Florida would not have been as atrocious as it was.) This week, the message is on renewables:

My administration will issue a Clean Car Challenge to the automakers of America, in the form of a single and substantial tax credit based on the reduction of carbon emissions. For every automaker who can sell a zero-emissions car, we will commit a 5,000 dollar tax credit for each and every customer who buys that car. For other vehicles, whatever type they may be, the lower the carbon emissions, the higher the tax credit. And these large tax credits will be available to everyone -- not just to those who have an accountant to explain it to them.

Furthermore, in the quest for alternatives to oil, our government has thrown around enough money subsidizing special interests and excusing failure. From now on, we will encourage heroic efforts in engineering, and we will reward the greatest success.

I further propose we inspire the ingenuity and resolve of the American people by offering a $300 million prize for the development of a battery package that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars. This is one dollar for every man, woman and child in the U.S. -- a small price to pay for helping to break the back of our oil dependency -- and should deliver a power source at 30 percent of the current costs.

This isn't really a gimmick, certainly not like a gas tax holiday, although it remains to be seen whether the Obama campaign can force the perception that McCain's policies are all gimmicky. Seems to me that both Obama and McCain face obstacles:

(1) With the exception of his support for ethanol subsidies, Obama generally has little to say about how to reduce gas prices in the short term largely because he and his advisers don't believe that there's much the U.S. can do to bring the prices down, short of shaming or threatening the oil companies.

(2) With his gas tax holiday, his renewable challenges, his support for nuclear energy and his support for off-shore oil drilling, McCain has a package of action verbs he can use to show votes that he is serious about fixing the problem. But with the exception of the gas tax holidays, all of his ideas would reduce carbon emissions over the long-term, and they wouldn't begin to help lower gas prices for decades. Building new nuclear plants would probably increase emissions in the short term, would require a new regulatory apparatus, will require years of testing and debate about where nuclear waste goes, and will require a massive, as of yet undiscovered shift in public opinion.