En route to a bachelor party in the Adirondacks last Friday, my friend Vance DeWitt and I stopped in a small town in upstate New York. Heading into Burger King for chicken tenders and lemonade (the latter to combat the Cajun Cough I contracted during last month’s New Orleans Jazz Festival), a headline hollered from inside a newspaper vending machine. Its words were as jarring as the surroundings were pastoral.
”DRILL IT, MINE IT, NUKE IT: Will Bush’s energy plan work?”
Now, the Middletown Times Herald Record is not the Washington Post. But this is just one startling example of the sort of withering fire that President Bush’s critics have unleashed in response to his recently released energy strategy.
Last Thursday, the day Bush unveiled his plan, Greenpeace objected by dumping a truckload of coal in front of Vice President Dick Cheney’s official residence. Inexplicably, the extremist ecological group failed to surround the nearby sidewalks with scrubbers to vacuum away any stray particles of deadly coal dust.
Commercials for the National Resources Defense Council appeared on the cable news channels during the day-long coverage of what the group calls Bush’s “pollution solution.” One channel interspersed shots of the White House amid smokestacks belching clouds of exhaust. “The oil and coal lobby contributed millions to its new leader,” the announcer says. “Problem is, he’s also our president.”
Last Thursday, according to the AP, Democratic operatives sat in a room in the basement of the United States Capitol organizing a phone-in operation featuring Californians upset about rising power and gasoline prices.
On May 15, Rep. Dick Gephardt led a team of Democrats to a Washington Exxon station to pre-denounce Bush’s energy proposal, even as the administration was sketching the final cornices onto its still-unpublicized blueprint. The Bush plan “looks like the annual report of Exxon-Mobil, and maybe that is about what it is,” Gephardt said clairvoyantly. He added that “the recommendations are largely recommendations that would be accepted by major oil companies.” The Missouri congressman called for conservation as the magic potion to cure America’s energy ills.
Gephardt would have been more credible had the House Minority Leader not arrived at this news conference in a Chevy Suburban. Asked to explain this cognitive dissonance on wheels, Gephardt spokesman Eric Smith told the New York Post, “We don’t say anything about changing people’s lifestyles.” So, we Americans have that going for us.
Missing from all this is the other side of the story. The airwaves have been very quiet when it comes to paid or earned media supportive of Bush’s energy plan.
“There hasn’t been any TV network coverage of any pro-Bush energy-policy ads or protests,” says Brent Baker of the Alexandria-based Media Research Center, which sedulously scans the spectrum. “There may not have been any at all.”
“There haven’t been any pro-supply TV ads,” says Karen Kerrigan, chairman of the Small Business Survival Committee in Washington, D.C. “Definitely the environmentalists and the other side on this issue came right out of the blocks with the hit ads.”
Kerrigan’s group, to its credit, has been distributing since last week a mock concert poster for the “Dangerous Darkness Tour” featuring “The Rolling Blackouts, with special guests The Kyoto Conspirators,” a production of Gray Davis and the California PUC. Beside a sketch showing a skull atop a California map, the poster lists a few of the hits listeners might hear: “Come on baby, light my fire,” “Sixteen candles,” and “Don’t let the sun go down on me.”
“The broader point is to learn from California that this is not the way to do energy policy,” Kerrigan says by phone. While wholly admirable, this satirical poster is one of the very few methods pro-market forces are using today to communicate pro-energy messages to lay audiences. The field is wide open for plenty more communications like this.
The unique selling proposition couldn’t be more straightforward. Bush’s supporters simply must explain that his plan will help keep the lights on. Why not air an ad with the Manhattan skyline showing one skyscraper after another going black?
“The choice is yours,” an announcer might say. “More energy production or watching The Sopranos by candlelight. Tell your congressman to keep the lights on. Support President Bush’s energy plan.”
Who would finance such an ad? Oh, let’s see. The oil companies. Electrical utilities. The automotive companies whose sales suffer when gasoline prices soar. Most likely, though, the lion’s share of U.S. corporations will observe in silence, too cowardly to fight for freedom and prosperity and too cheap to support the efforts of pro-market think tanks and other organizations that could educate the public on the importance of increasing energy production.
As usual, most companies affected by all this will hide in the tall grass while they watch free-market advocates stick their necks out on TV shows and op-ed pages fighting to make Bush’s proposal a reality. Should it be signed into law, these same conglomerates will emerge from the reeds to sweep up billions of dollars in new revenues from the development of energy and other technologies. Free-market groups may see a random check for $5,000 here and there, if they’re lucky. It is ironic that those who fight for economic freedom see so little of its tangible benefits while those who cower under their desks wind up with golden parachutes. The average free-market activist would be thrilled to have a golden umbrella.
Even if corporate America keeps its checkbooks shut, pro-supply groups certainly can resort to low-cost guerrilla PR tactics. Bush supporters, for instance, should hold a press conference in which they give away a pair of mountain bikes, one each for Gephardt and Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle.
“We offer these sustainable modes of transportation to America’s most prominent Democrats,” a spokesman might say, “in the sincere hope that they will be able to peddle home to their constituencies when Congress takes its next recess.” Imagine the fun that TV crews could have following these pro-market troublemakers as they delivered these bikes to the Capitol Hill offices of these Democratic titans. Especially if accompanied by a few pro-energy congressmen, this just might make the evening news.
Pro-energy activists with even smaller budgets could generate ink by trailing the generally Democratic opponents of the Bush plan as they appear in Washington and around the country. At public gatherings, they could give citizens and reporters alike something called a “Do-nothing-Democrat Emergency Lighting System.” This would consist of a candle and a matchbook.
The White House should encourage pro-market groups to stage similar stunts to build support for President Bush’s plan. These organizations should use their analytical and creative energies to combat the environmentalists, both in newspaper columns and in the streets. And, for once, it would be nice to see corporate America stand up for freedom and progress by supporting such efforts and using its considerable marketing muscle to educate citizens on the importance of not spending the 21st Century in the dark.