It's not so important how individual presidential candidates stand on a single, isolated issue -- how many people remember what stances Kennedy and Nixon took on the islands of Quemoy and Matsu? Instead, what's important is the sense voters get for what kind of firm, underlying principles guide a candidate's decision-making.
Reviewing the positions of Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama on the issue of America's "energy independence," the answer now appears to be that the two men have displayed ... few defining principles, at all.
Up through last year, both U.S. senators -- seeking to placate green extremists who insist Americans go "cold turkey," attempting to meet our energy needs with windmills and solar power, alone -- opposed additional offshore oil drilling on the outer continental shelf.
But as gasoline prices approached $4 and public support soared for using our own petroleum deposits to increase world supply and reduce dependence on foreign oil, Sen. McCain was the first to make the switch. He's now spent months aggressively calling for more offshore drilling.
Against that, Democrats responded with the absurd demand that oil companies should first drill a test well on every square mile of the United States for which they have existing oil leases -- regardless of the fact geologists can find no evidence there's any oil there.
The Democrats then brayed in "chain" e-mails that "We can't drill our way to lower gas prices" -- leading some pundits to ask if it isn't equally true that "We can't eat our way out of being hungry."
Oil produced by new wells could take years to reach the market, goes the third and most pathetic Democratic talking point.
Finally, the Democrats tried their oldest trick, envy of the rich, accusing President Bush and Sen. McCain -- but not Al Gore, whose family wealth comes largely from Occidental Petroleum stock -- of being "in the pocket of Big Oil," an industry broken up by Congress to facilitate competition a century ago, an industry that supposedly commits some moral outrage by earning a 7 percent average profit, most of which flows back to everyday Americans through the energy stocks held in their 401(k) and pension plans.
None of these diversions and scare tactics worked. Americans know full well that high energy prices mean higher prices on everything shipped to our stores by train or truck, including groceries. With this one issue alone, by sticking too long with the elitist "let them starve in the dark" philosophy that seems to come to him so easily, Sen. Obama watched his lead in the polls over an underfunded geriatric dwindle to nothing.
Monday, in a speech in Lansing, Mich., Democratic Party standard-bearer Barack Obama finally caved.
"Breaking our oil addiction is one of the greatest challenges our generation will ever face," he intoned. "It will take nothing less than a complete transformation of our economy."
So, Sen. Obama announced, he would now OK more offshore drilling as part of a "comprehensive energy policy" including massive new taxpayer subsidies to develop hybrid cars, windmills, solar panels -- the whole costly catalog.
Not only that, Sen. Obama, who as recently as last month argued against tapping the national petroleum reserve, proposed Monday that the government sell 70 million barrels of oil from the stockpile, pointing out that past releases from the reserve lowered gas prices within two weeks.
At which point -- this is all Monday in Lansing, Mich., mind you -- Sen. Obama, having just joined with Sen. McCain in admitting it's vital to get more oil onto the market from domestic sources, warned, "Like George Bush and Dick Cheney before him," Sen. McCain "sees more drilling as the answer to all of our energy problems, and like them, he's found a receptive audience in the very same oil companies that have blocked our progress for so long. In fact, he raised more than one million dollars from big oil just last month."
Wow. A whole million dollars? How much has Sen. Obama gotten from the government employee unions?
Sen. Obama still wants to punish oil companies with a "windfall profits" tax, you see -- making it less likely they'd have retained capital to invest in the new drilling he's just called for. And possibly explaining why they're supporting his opponent, instead of him.
And how is it, precisely, that the oil companies have "blocked our progress"? By holding people at gunpoint and forcing them to fill their tanks with clean-burning gasoline? Or is this some cryptic reference to the old myth that "Big Oil" stole the patent for the engine that'll run forever on water, murdered the inventor, and is "keeping the whole thing under wraps"?
"We're not going to achieve energy independence by inflating our tires," responded Sen. McCain as he addressed employees at the National Label Co. in Lafayette Hill, Pa. -- ridiculing the part of Sen. Obama's "comprehensive energy plan" that calls for consumers to fully inflate their tires for improved gas mileage.
Energy makes civilization possible. Energy is good. First the wood fire, then charcoal, then coal, then whale oil, then kerosene and gasoline and finally (so far) nuclear power have enabled mankind to live longer, healthier lives -- with each fuel polluting less than the one before.
It's a progression. While each of these transitions did eventually lead to "a complete transformation of our economy," those changes were rarely as wrenching as what the messianic young Sen. Obama seems to envision.
Was there a "crisis" as petroleum products gradually replaced whale oil in the world's lamps in the late 19th century? No. A better, cheaper fuel was found; the remaining whales were spared.
Nor were any massive tax subsidies or "emergency federal programs" required.