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Time to Bury Cheney Doctrine, Go on an Energy Diet

By John Yewell

Five years ago Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney gave a speech to the Associated Press in Toronto that, until President Bush's "addiction to oil" line in his state of the union three months ago, set the tone for this administration's energy policy.

Cheney dismissed energy conservation as merely a "sign of personal virtue" as well as groups that suggest "that government step in to force Americans to consume less energy, as if we could simply conserve or ration our way out of the situation we're in."

Today, faced with enraged voters storming the energy Bastille, a lot of Republicans are suddenly trying to sound virtuous.

Regardless of what they do, or of how complicated the reasons are for the latest run-up in gasoline prices, when it comes to energy policy Republicans and their business friends will shoulder the lion's share of responsibility.

On the level of political theater, it's great sport watching the most oil industry-conflicted administration in the history of history try to weasel out of responsibility for consumer anger over pump shock. If we're paying $5 a gallon in October, Dennis Hastert might as well invite Nancy Pelosi in early to measure the drapes.

For Democrats, meanwhile, Bush's August energy bill has become a symbol of largesse to big oil. But they forget that blue-collar state colleagues, like Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, wrote into the bill more lenient auto fuel consumption rules designed to preserve jobs in Detroit at the expense of the environment - and, now, consumption-driven gas prices.

We're so busy assigning blame that we've forgotten that there are people who support higher gas prices, and for defensible reasons. I'm not talking about oil execs, with their $400 million dollar retirement packages and who this week report their latest exploding profits.

I'm talking about the same liberals who, ironically, are now bashing Republicans over those prices.

Liberals and greens have long argued that European-style gas prices would result in more efficient energy use - including greater use of public transportation - and, in the long run, less pollution. They'd rather it had been accomplished through higher taxes rather than higher profits, but the fact remains that around the country, that's exactly what's happening. Higher prices may even lower your auto insurance rates, according to a recent report, because you'll be driving less.

We're all unwittingly engaged in a huge market study that may finally reveal at what gas price yours and my driving habits are moderated.

The political calculation of who's causing the increases may not even be based on the right questions. A recent CNN poll revealed 48 percent blame the oil companies, 20 percent lawmakers, 19 percent gas-guzzling vehicles, and 13 percent OPEC. CNN didn't include a fifth option: Me.

Regardless of how you frame it, the complexity of the issue won't mitigate the criticism the party in power deserves over the fiasco. But it's also time for a little honesty on the left. Liberals assume they're the ones with credibility on this issue, but whether oil industry profits are obscene or not, it's disingenuous to celebrate the benefits of higher gas prices and simultaneously lash out at them.

Admitting that high gas prices are achieving long-cherished environmental goals would mean giving them up as a political cudgel. It's much safer to talk about price gouging (which may well be taking place) and windfall profits taxes (maybe a good idea, although not if they result in lower production and even higher prices). Republicans have eagerly jumped on these bandwagons-cum-political life rafts, hoping to escape the angry mob.

In the end this may all be about something as simple as calories. We consume them inefficiently, in our bodies and our cars, and we have become fat and lazy.

It's time to bury the last vestiges of the Cheney doctrine and put America on an energy diet, which liberals and conservatives alike should embrace. If American oil companies won't use their profits to make the kind of investments in renewable alternatives that their European counterparts have made, then the public will insist, rightly, that those profits be taxed and the money given to someone who will do the job.

Meanwhile, both sides should focus less on the 2006 election and more on seizing this moment in history to craft a real energy policy for the 21st century - five years after it got off to an abortive start in Toronto.

Write John Yewell at jyewell@mac.com.

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