John McCain’s proposal for a gas-tax holiday went over like a ton of bricks. But his proposals to open up the continental shelf for drilling have struck a chord. A recent CBS/New York Times poll showed that Americans back offshore drilling, 62-28; a bipartisan group of senators is at work on a compromise, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has signaled openness to the issue. Expect to hear a continuous chorus of “Drill here, drill now” in Minneapolis this week. But as a short-term fix, offshore drilling is just as lame as a gas-tax holiday. Exploring off the beaches of south Florida won’t bring new supplies to the market for several years. And when offshore oil does arrive, the amounts will be so small compared with global demand that they won’t have much impact on the price we pay. So why has drilling resonated? NEWSWEEK’s economics expert Daniel Gross offers five theories:
• Vast right-wing conspiracy: The gas-tax holiday was derided by the economic-policy wing of the Republican Party. By contrast, the Republican noise machine—the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Washington think tanks, talk- radio blowhards, the dwindling core of Capitol Hill Republicans—has marched in impressive message lock step for drilling.
• Vast Marxist conspiracy: By sapping the highway trust fund of construction funds, the gas-tax holiday was a potential job killer. Domestic drilling, by contrast, is something akin to a jobs program for highly paid blue-collar workers.
• Screw the foreigners: Call it national security, or call it chauvinism, but drilling for domestic oil sets up a zero-sum game. Every barrel of oil produced here is one we don’t have to buy from our long and growing list of enemies: Venezuela, Iran and Russia. By contrast, a gas-tax holiday just offers more opportunities to enrich Hugo Chávez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
• Mytho-historical: Wildcatting for oil conjures up legendary fortunes (Rockefeller, Getty, Hughes) and feeds into romanticized notions of how the nation was built by pioneers who tapped into the natural bounty of this resource-rich land. Think John Wayne and “There Will Be Blood.” Gas-tax holidays conjure up images of accountants. Think David Schwimmer.
• Freudian: The language and imagery surrounding the issue—drills penetrating the earth’s crust in search of gushers—tap into deep-seated subconscious desires. A gas-tax holiday? Not so much.