Almost 29 years ago, on July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter delivered what is considered one of the worst speeches of his career. Americans were struggling with an enormous energy crisis. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries had jacked up prices again. A majority of gas stations in America did not have sufficient fuel, and those that did were charging far higher prices than one year before. Carter’s energy plan, which took a long time to pass Congress, had not calmed the roiling issue.
After meeting with all kinds of experts at Camp David, Carter gave a speech to millions of Americans. He implored citizens to accept that they lived in an age of limits. He called for self-sacrifice and diminished consumption.
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin
While the speech might have touched on the real problems underlying the crisis, it was deemed a political failure. Critics complained that the president was lecturing the nation at a time he needed to be offering relief. Presidents should not give sermons but rather solutions. Newspapers were filled with op-ed pieces lambasting the president for blaming Americans for the problem.
Democratic proponents of new energy policies have been trapped in that July moment ever since. Even though these Democrats have continued to offer more accurate assessments of the energy challenges and focus on solutions more likely to end the crisis — like conservation, an increase in fuel efficiency and the development of alternative energies — oil friendly Republicans have regularly done a better job on the campaign trail at selling their ideas.
Since the 1970s, most members of the GOP have consistently offered two solutions to the energy problem: more drilling and more militarism. While these do little to offer immediate relief at the pump, they make sense to voters and seem to offer a clearer vision of what government can accomplishment.
Ever since the 1973 Arab embargo, many Republicans have pushed for more domestic drilling as one solution to the problem of insecure sources of high-priced oil. In his 1975 special message on energy and the economy, a year after the embargo had led to long gas lines and soaring prices, President Gerald R. Ford warned, “Americans are no longer in full control of their own national destiny, when that destiny depends on uncertain foreign fuel at high prices fixed by others.”
More than three decades later, in his 2007 State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush echoed Ford. “For too long, our nation has been dependent on foreign oil. And this dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes and to terrorists who could cause huge disruptions of oil shipments and raise the price of oil and do great harm to our economy.”
From Ford through Bush II, the Republican solution for energy independence has been to make it easier for the oil industry to drill in the U.S. by offering subsidies, tax breaks and an easing of environmental restrictions. Since Bush took office in 2001, Republicans have pushed for increased oil exploration — especially in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve.
Even if they fail in Congress, their calls for greater supply sound better on the campaign trail than Carter-era appeals to cut back. As Bush said in the midst of the California energy shortage “you cannot conserve your way to energy independence. We can do a better job in conservation, but we darn sure have to do a better job of finding more supply.” In a direct contrast to Carter and his cardigan-wearing pleas for conservation, Vice President Dick Cheney said, “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.”
In addition to increasing domestic supply, the other GOP solution to securing more oil has been an increased military presence in the Persian Gulf. This has been a policy posture that many Democrats also accepted.
The drive began in the 1970s and 1980s, when Carter and Ronald Reagan increased the U.S. commitment to having military forces in the Persian Gulf region to protect oil resources. Washington worked with allies, ranging from Iraq to Saudi Arabia, who helped stabilize the supplies.
Democrats, as well as moderate Republicans who support new energy policies, have not done a good job framing the two main goals they pursue: search for renewable sources of energy and try to substantially reduce energy consumption.
Democrats will have to offer more in the short term than populist attacks on Big Oil that don’t actually deliver cheaper prices at the pump. Energy-related issues have lagged behind other aspects of environmentalism, which have taken a deeper political hold since the 1970s — like recycling or water quality control.
But there is evidence that we are in a moment of change. In certain respects, public opinion has outpaced political rhetoric. Even though Carter’s speech was a flop, the environmental movement gradually influenced the way the public thought about issues like conservation of energy. With energy prices at extremely high levels, polls suggest that the public is more willing than ever to deal with environmental challenges.
Building on the work of the environmental movement, former Vice President Al Gore has helped to popularize the issue of global warming through his Oscar-winning film and advocacy. More Republican politicians have started to question the Bush approach to the energy crisis. National-security concerns have also broadened electoral interest in reducing energy dependence on the Middle East.
Even when the Republicans controlled Congress, the Bush team has not been able to get through a measure to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to drilling. Shifts in consumer attitudes and consumption have also helped citizens see practical steps toward reducing oil use. According to several recent reports, the high cost of fuel is persuading a large number of Americans to switch from Humvees and SUVs to smaller cars and even bicycles for daily commute. Mass transportation is experiencing stunning rider increases.
Yet environmentalists still have a long way to go. The alternative Republican solution still holds strong electoral appeal. The United States is a country defined by suburbanization, cars, big houses and the extravagant use of fuel. With all its progress, the environmental movement did not halt this trend.
Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, has, over the years, been more complex in his actual policy positions but he just recently embraced the traditional GOP response of calling for off-shore drilling. Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, will have to work on this challenge.
As in the 1970s, Americans are again frustrated with the rising price of oil. But Democrats need to work on how they frame and sell their policies — or they could end up like Carter in 1979.
*Meg Jacobs is an associate professor of history at MIT. She is writing a book on the energy crisis in the 1970s. Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of “Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s.” *