Bush: C'mon! You Know You Love Big Oil!

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George W. Bush is stepping into the ring for what could be the title fight of election issues. On Friday, the Republican challenger will unveil his energy policy for America, his proposal to fill the void that he says the Clinton administration has left on the issue. Here's a hint: They call it black gold. Texas tea. Oil, that is.

According to his guru on economic matters, ex-Fed man Lawrence Lindsey, Bush is going to tell America that what it needs is more oil. More oil from OPEC, more oil from Mexico, more oil from Alaska. And who better to get you more oil than the two guys who really know oil?

"We're for more supply," Lindsey said Tuesday. The Bush assault will of course feature charges of political expediency and frivolous market-making, and continue to assail the Clinton administration for letting things get this bad. But mainly it is a call for Americans to embrace their addiction to the dark mistress, and to vote for the best qualified pushers in town. The election, said Lindsey, can be cast as a choice between "rhetoric and people who know something about the oil business." Meet Mr. Halliburton, who ran the Gulf War, and Mr. Midland, whose father won it. New slogan: Oil. You know you want it.

Natural gas, too — Lindsey touted Bush's ability to get more natural gas out of Mexico. But mostly it sounds to be about rehabbing America's pumping, refining and oil-services industries: There's plenty in the ground to go around, they're saying; keep a strong arm with the Arabs, and American business will do the rest if the government would just let up on the regulations a little.

The oil issue seems to be working for Bush; after a solidly on-message week, a Wednesday CNN/USA Today/Gallup tracking poll has him holding on to a slight lead of two points over Gore. The Texas governor has evidently decided to look a supposed liability — being labeled as the candidate of Big Oil — square in the eye and try to turn it into a virtue.

But he may be leaving Gore lots of room to move. Over the last eight years, the vice president has tended to disappoint those who hoped he would try to deliver the tough message that America (and the rest of the globe) needs to be weaned off oil. Lately he's relented to the political realities and been more concerned about checkbooks in the balance than Earth. But that won't stop him from turning green at the sound of derricks, dusting off all his painless alternative-energy initiatives because he knows Bush isn't really looking that far ahead.

With the plan almost surely still being written, Bush still has an opportunity to leaven his outlook a little. Include something convincing about cleaner air, just to have a response that doesn't turn Big Business into its own watchdog. But the fighters' stances are pretty much set. Gore will go environmental at least occasionally, but his main defense will be the one Democrats have grown so skilled at deploying against the GOP: Hey, we're just trying to help you heat your homes and drive your cars. Is that so wrong? Bush and Cheney will try to find a way to say yes without sounding callous. They'll hit at Clinton-Gore for being wishy-washy, for shape-shifting, and for letting OPEC types kick sand in their faces since the Gulf War.

And on Friday, it looks like Bush will start reminding voters that for all Gore's talk, the vice president hasn't been heating their homes and filling the tanks of their Explorers at reasonable prices all these years. Big Oil did that.

So how about a little respect?