Battle Lines On Energy Emerge

Foes, Backers Of Next Big Obama Effort Take Cues From Health Care Debate

August 31, 2009|By Jim Tankersley | Jim Tankersley,Tribune Newspapers

As the battle over health care unfolds, the attack ads, spin-doctoring and town hall rhetoric are being watched with special attention by a group that has no direct stake in the game - combatants in Washington's next big fight, the one over President Barack Obama's energy and climate plan.

Obama's climate plan calls for sweeping government efforts to develop new technology and strategies for using energy more efficiently. It would also create a complex "cap and trade" system for setting limits on carbon emissions and pressuring industry and others to reduce air pollution.

Many of the groups opposing or supporting these proposals are gleaning valuable lessons to be learned from the health care fight.

Groups on both sides of the energy and climate legislation "are not just watching health care closely, but calibrating how we go about doing this based on what we see happening out there," said Matt Bennett, vice president for public affairs at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank engaged in both the health care and climate fights.

Supporters of the climate bill are particularly intent on avoiding what some see as the Obama administration's biggest stumble in the health care debate: its failure to convince voters, particularly middle-class workers, that the legislation would tangibly improve their lives.

In both the health care and energy-climate debates, Bennett said, "the challenge is convincing people that they'll get some real return for reform. In energy, it's clear to us from focus groups that the only way to do that is to talk about economic growth."

Noting conservatives' success in packing town meetings with outspoken critics of Democrats' health care plans, environmentalists and business groups have begun trying to turn out energetic crowds of grass roots activists to dominate public forums devoted to the issue.

Supporters have begun to worry that Republican strategists will come up with a line of attack similar to the "death panels" charge, in which Democrats were accused - falsely - of proposing to create oversight bodies to deny care to terminal and other severely sick patients.

Obama's supporters are concerned in particular that the other side will charge that the "cap and trade" system could be abused to make millions for Wall Streeters.

Opponents are already pounding economics, too, charging that the bill would send gasoline and electricity prices soaring and kill U.S. jobs - allegations the bill's supporters say are largely untrue; in fact, they say, shifting to a more climate-friendly economy will create more jobs.

Critics have also taken up the big-spending, big-government intrusion argument often raised by critics of the health legislation.

Radio ads

The greenhouse gas limits at the center of the climate bill are "just another layer of government regulation on our energy sector," said Thomas J. Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, a nonprofit funded in part by energy companies that has launched a radio ad campaign against the bill in Midwestern states.

Analysts say the energy debate is unlikely to play out as an exact rerun of the health care fight. Medical care is among the most personal issues that Congress deals with. Energy is one of the least personal.

Voters know their doctors intimately; how many of them even know how their electricity is generated, or where?

As with the health care debate, though, the energy bill - centered on the system to limit greenhouse gas emissions through a series of tradable permits - is so complicated that it's hard to explain to voters and easy to demonize.

Polls suggest that voters are less passionate about energy than health care. But that hasn't stopped opponents and supporters of the energy bill from mobilizing troops for public displays of passion.

When Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas spoke at the groundbreaking for a biomass power plant in remote Camden, Ark., earlier this month, the crowd of nearly 400 included 250 "clean energy" advocates brought together by the Sierra Club.

A few days later in Houston, oil company workers packed a rally - sponsored by conservative groups and major oil and business lobbyists - to celebrate the fossil fuel industry and denounce the climate bill.

"Our side is starting to really turn people out," said Josh Dorner, a Sierra Club spokesman. "The public is on the side of this. They want clean energy."

A batch of recent polls show voters do, indeed, support efforts to boost solar, wind and other energy alternatives to fossil fuels; that more voters believe those efforts will create jobs rather than eliminate them; and that a majority appears willing to pay some amount of higher energy costs as a result.

'Our alternative'

That's why some GOP strategists are warning that, unlike with the health debate so far, Republicans can't just criticize Obama's energy plans - they have to offer their own, including a boost for renewable energy.

"On this issue, Republicans have to say, 'here's our alternative,' " said Glen Bolger, a GOP pollster with Public Opinion Strategies in Virginia, who has polled the energy question this summer.

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