Pundit Central

Slick Willie

Issue 1 is President Clinton’s decision to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Issue 2 is the tightening presidential race.

Appearing on several Sunday morning shows, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson frames the petroleum decision as a reaction to a small national crisis, not as an attempt to influence energy prices before an election. Dick Cheney also makes the talk-show rounds, blasting the Clinton administration for not having a coherent energy strategy. If Gore was as influential in the administration as he claims, Cheney asks, why does he need to use political tricks to mask a severe energy shortage after nearly eight years in office? Asked on CNN’s Late Edition   what he would do instead, Cheney says he would ask Congress to open up Alaska to more drilling. ( The McLaughlin Group’s Eleanor Clift argues that this position will drive away women voters.)

Most pundits attribute President Clinton’s oil decision to politics. Alan Murray ( Washington Week in Review) and Paul Gigot (PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer) note that Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers wrote Bill Clinton last week arguing that opening the reserve would not make economic sense–releasing enough oil to affect prices would threaten national security, and releasing a token amount could be negated by a small production decrease by OPEC. Many pundits also note that in February Al Gore himself–then opposed to opening the reserve–made these same arguments when pressed on the issue by Bill Bradley. Cheney, as well as conservative pundits like George F. Will (ABC’s This Week) and Kate O’Beirne (CNN’s Capital Gang), note that Gore used to advocate higher fuel prices to protect the environment. Murray notes that Bush, too, used to advocate higher prices when he worked in the oil industry.

Will Clinton’s decision help Gore? George Stephanopoulos (TW) and Mark Shields (CG) think so, because appearing to do something about the prices outweighs the risks of appearing to do nothing (as George W. Bush’s father did during the 1992 recession). Most liberal pundits think that Bush and Cheney’s oil backgrounds will prevent them from effectively criticizing Gore on the issue. But Bob Novak (CG) notes that the current crisis has nothing to do with American oil companies and everything to do with OPEC, federal drilling regulations, and gas taxes (for which, Cheney reminds us, Gore cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate in 1993).

Most pundits agree that the presidential race is now about dead even in the popular vote; in the electoral college, Gore still holds a small lead. Bush had his first good week since the party conventions, primarily by charming Oprah and Regis on television. Gore had a bad week, primarily by lying about prescription drug prices in a speech. Talking heads are split on the propriety of the candidates’ recent appearances on chatty, soft-question programs such as Oprah. Tucker Carlson (LE), Margaret Carlson (CG), and Sam Donaldson (TW) think such appearances are potentially undemocratic, because they encourage people to vote based on emotion rather than on policy issues. (“If emoting on Oprah is a qualification, then 90 percent of us could be president,” wags Margaret Carlson.) Doris Kearns Goodwin (NBC’s Meet the Press) thinks that relaxing with the masses helps democracy, but that occasionally–such as when Bill Clinton told MTV that he wears briefs, not boxers–these appearances can be undignified. All the pundits agree that such appearances are designed to woo women voters.

Phil Donahue, Pundit

Phil Donahue appears on this week’s MTP pundit chat. Donahue is identified as a “Ralph Nader supporter,” and he denounces the two-party system and the influence of oil money in politics. God knows that Pundit Central has nothing against fresh voices on the talk shows, but why Phil Donahue, and why on NBC’s MTP? Could this have to do with Donahue’s once hosting an afternoon chat show on … NBC? Is this the beginning of a series of intra-network back-scratching invites by Tim Russert? Next week: Jay Leno?

Last Words

Have you ever been to Prudhoe [Bay, Alaska], any of you here? I’ve been to [the oil pipeline at] Prudhoe. Prudhoe is on the Arctic Circle, in that general area. It’s as clean as it can be. In fact, the wildlife love it. The elk get up next to that pipe, and because of the heat from the friction of the moving oil, they hump up against it. They love it, they want to stay there. It is totally clean, you got to visit it!

–John McLaughlin (TMG)

Photograph of President Clinton on the Slate Table of Contents by William Philpott/Reuters.