I don't think I'm giving out trade secrets when I say that Hillary Clinton is a tactician. What she learned from the collapse of her health care plan in 1994 is that she needs to get out in front of issues, pre-empt her opponents, and piggy-back on their popularity to transfer it to herself. These aren't negative traits, they're the hallmarks of good politicians. But in her public statements you can read between the lines and understand who she fears as a rival should there be a Presidential bid in 2008.
For a time, she was clearly triangulating conservatives like John McCain and Newt Gingrich and George Allen. She pushed ridiculously frivilous legislation like a flag-burning amendment and regulation of violent video games. But with yesterday's speech
at the National Press Club, it's quite clear that nobody worries Hillary more than Al Gore.
Obviously, with gas prices at record highs, energy policy is in the news. Gore's movie premiere is another factor. But more than anything, I think there's been something of a tectonic shift at work here. The conventional wisdom is clearly pointing in a different direction, and Hillary is looking to play to a left-leaning base that she obviously feels will be ascendant come 2008.
I don't want to look at her speech completely through a political lens, because there were some great policy prescriptions in there. First she framed the issue as one in where the laissez-faire policies of the virtuous free market have failed, utterly:
Now, there are no easy answers to the complexity of this problem, but I believe that we can get our arms around it. It will take a well-funded, comprehensive approach with staying power. Government has to change basically our "do nothing" policies. Businesses have to be part of the solution, not the problem, and provide accessibility, efficiency and innovation, and we, as citizens, have to do much more to reduce our dependence on oil and begin to conserve and demonstrate more energy efficiency. We can't just point fingers and sort of place blame on anyone else. Foreigners over there, oil companies over here -- the ball is in our court. It is up to us to act and to act soon. It is going to require a virtual revolution in our thinking about energy and in the actions that must follow.
This is a "common good" approach, calling for all Americans to sacrifice for a much-needed cause. She goes further to explain how national security is severely affected by having choke points to oil in unstable regions. She touches on how oil-rich nations blackmail oil-hungry ones. She mentions the looming economic collapse as oil reaches a peak. And then she says this:
And finally, our values demand that we be good stewards of the planet for our children and our children's children. We are failing that simple moral test if we continue to stand by as the Earth warms faster than at any time in the past 200,000 years. I have seen firsthand and have heard from the natives in places from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Svalbard, Norway, about the consequences of global warming.
And now, thanks to former Vice President Al Gore, who has been a committed visionary on global warming for more than two decades, everyone can see those consequences for themselves at a local movie theater.
This is very canny, giving respect to the man who may become your main adversary while co-opting his main issue. But Hillary's also putting herself out on a limb here. She's calling for a revolution in thought, a plea to stop the status quo and shake up traditional beliefs. Like this sentence:
We are now spending far more on military security in the Persian Gulf than it would cost to jump-start a clean energy future with all the benefits in new jobs, enhanced security and reduced global climate change...
Now, this can't happen overnight, and it does require a major change in policy and attitude, not just in the government but also in the private sector and, indeed, in each of our lives. But we need to resist the idea that kicking the oil habit will wreck our economy. In fact the greater risk is that we will wreck our economy by failing to kick the habit.
She's also unafraid to talk about the role of conservation and efficiency, mocked as merely a "personal virtue" by the current Vice President. And she sets out concrete goals:
Today, I want to suggest a concrete goal of reducing our dependence on foreign oil by at least 50 percent by 2025. That would be a reduction in oil consumption of just under 8 million barrels a day. Now I believe a 50 by 25 initiative will energize our economy, not undermine it, and how will we get there? Two words -- innovation and efficiency. They encompass the three major tasks that I want to discuss today.
First, we need to convert our liquid fuel base from oil to biomass. That can reduce our consumption by 4 million barrels a day by 2025.
Second, we need to change our reliance on high carbon electricity sources to low carbon electricity sources through innovation in renewables, such as solar and wind, as well as carbon dioxide sequestration.
The third task is efficiency; getting much more from the cars, buildings, power plants, manufacturing processes we have. Just by major efficiencies in cars, expanding hybrids, getting more fuel efficiency from trucks, industrial and residential sources, we can reduce consumption by another 4 million barrels a day.
Now, efficiency will start us down the road to a better energy future, but an independent clean energy future will require dramatic innovation. The possibilities are greater than ever for governments, science and industry to succeed. For example, scientists estimate that the wind potential of just three states -- Texas, Kansas and North Dakota -- is equal to more than half of the electricity we consume today. California could meet half of its power needs from solar alone [...]
But we can't just wait for innovation. Just like the Manhattan or Apollo projects, it takes focused and dedicated resources to make it happen. That's why today I'll be introducing legislation for a strategic energy fund. We need a serious commitment from government to prioritize advanced energy, and a commitment from our oil companies to reinvest their unanticipated profits into our shared energy future. I want the oil companies to be part of the solution. Last year, the top six oil companies had combined profits of $113 billion, more than the annual income of 170 countries. Now, Exxon Mobil had, you know, the highest profits in corporate history. Yet, when CEO Lee Raymond was asked about how much his company had invested in alternative energy over the last decade, his reply was, and I quote, "a negligible amount." Well, that's unexcusable. You know, the oil company is making $300 million a day, not because they planned on it, not because of great managerial expertise, but because of escalating world demand and, therefore, increasing prices for their commodity that they didn't create in the first place. I think it's time that we made sure they put a fair share of their profits toward a sound energy future.
There are outher proposals in there, but the point is made. This most centrist of centrist senators, the master of triangulation, feels the need to triangulate to the LEFT instead of the right. That's remarkable given the results of the last two elections, and it shows how weakened the Republican Party truly is. We have talk of wind power, fuel cells, mass transit (Wow!), cellulosic ethanol, biomass, an Apollo project for energy (all of which I strongly support) right out in the open, from arguably the most high-profile politician in the country outside who doesn't live in the White House. She mentions the fantastic proposal by Sen. Obama to trade health-care services help to the automakers in exchange for improved CAFE standards. These things were simply not part of the debate a couple years ago. But they must be today. And Hillary Clinton is not one to go out on a limb like this unless she knows it won't break.
This should come as great news to anyone who wants to hand over a better world to their children, a world that's still somewhat sustainable, viable, and secure.
This is really a great speech on the merits. But it's also an historic speech of sorts, because it shows the literal shifting of the winds in Washington. Al Gore has gone from "Mr. Ozone" to a prophet, and outside of those paid by Exxon Mobil he is being taken seriously. Hillary's coming aboard signals, as usual, that she is going where the country is already at. They're with Al Gore.
This last paragraph sums it up, and turns the ultimate Republican meme of "we're the optimists" and turns it on its head:
...one of my colleagues came to the floor in opposition, and he just basically said: We can't do this. It'll ruin our economy. We'll go backwards. It'll destroy the American standard of living, and I just couldn't believe what was I hearing, and I got up and I went to the floor, and I said, "Since when have Americans become so fatalistic that we go around saying we can't do it, we can't do it? That is not the tradition of our country. We can do it. We just need a commitment to do it, and we need the leadership in both the public and the private sectors to get it done." And I believe that we definitely can get it done.