Magazine article The New Yorker

Changing Lanes

Magazine article The New Yorker

Changing Lanes

Article excerpt

Late last month, Senator John McCain went up with a new television ad, titled "Pump." The ad begins no place in particular with a gasoline pump, circa 1965. "Gas prices--four dollars, five dollars," a female narrator intones, as the numbers on the pump's front panel spin. "No end in sight, because some in Washington are still saying no to drilling in America, no to independence from foreign oil.

"Who can you thank for rising prices at the pump?" the narrator asks. She leaves the question hanging, while a recording from a recent political rally grows louder and louder. "Obama! Obama!" the crowd screams.

How important is it for candidates to tell the truth? Throughout his long career in politics, McCain, who called his PAC Straight Talk America, has presented frankness as his fundamental virtue. If his positions--on campaign finance, on immigration reform, on the Bush tax cuts--were unpopular with either the White House or the Republican Party faithful, that just showed that he was willing to tackle the tough issues. When his campaign very nearly collapsed and then revived, in December, McCain attributed his rally not to the fact that voters liked what he was saying but to the fact that they didn't. "I've been telling people the truth, whether I thought that's what they wanted or not," he said. After his crucial victory in New Hampshire, in January, he again credited his candor: "I went to the people of New Hampshire to tell them the truth. Sometimes I told them what they wanted to know, sometimes I told them what they didn't want to know."

The past few weeks have seen a change in McCain. He has hired new advisers, and with them he seems to have worked out a new approach. He is no longer telling the sorts of hard truths that people would prefer not to confront, or even half-truths that they might find vaguely discomfiting. Instead, he's opted out of truth altogether. "Well, that certainly didn't take long," the Times observed.

The sharp increase in gasoline prices--the national average for a gallon of regular hit a record high, of $4.11, on July 7th--has shown up in several recent voter polls as a top concern. In a CNN/Opinion Research survey released last month, seventy-seven per cent of respondents said that gas prices would be "extremely" or "very" important in their choice for President. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken in mid-July put energy and gasoline prices just below "job creation and economic growth" but above the war as a priority for the government to address. Polls also show that a majority of Americans believe that more drilling for oil in the United States would alleviate the problem. The CNN/Opinion Research survey found that seventy-three per cent of Americans back increased offshore drilling--although President Bush recently lifted an executive moratorium on drilling in most coastal waters, a congressionally imposed moratorium remains in place--while a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey showed sixty-nine per cent in favor of allowing drilling on currently protected federal lands. (Twelve per cent supported such a move even if it caused damage to "environmentally important areas.")

Of course, the results of these or any other public-opinion surveys do not alter the underlying reality. The Department of Energy estimates that there are eighteen billion barrels of technically recoverable oil in offshore areas of the continental United States that are now closed to drilling. …

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