Now, 'Prius Republicans'?

The timing of our NEWSWEEK-Shell Oil forum on energy politics was exquisite. On the very day we discussed energy's emergence as a key issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain made headlines by abandoning his support for the 27-year-old ban on oil and gas exploration on the outer continental shelf (OCS).

Much of our bipartisan discussion centered on just that topic. One of our Republican panelists, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, very much wants to drill in the OCS, but thought it would be a bad idea for McCain to say so. Why? Because he thought McCain would be portrayed as a flip-flopper and that McCain's most precious resource is his reputation for strong, even hard-headed, commitment to his beliefs.

Cole may be right, but McCain clearly calculated that, politically, it was worth the risk as Americans struggle with the consequences of soaring energy prices in their lives.

Besides Cole, who also happens to head the GOP's House campaign committee, the panelists were Democratic Rep. Jane Harman of California, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and my NEWSWEEK colleague Eleanor Clift. We also heard from Marvin Odum, a Houstonian who is the new head of Shell. We all fielded a number of thoughtful questions from the audience of about 200 Washington officials and executives.

If there was a bottom line, it was this:

Senator Corker, a businessman by background and an innovative and sensible former mayor of Chattanooga, talked at length about the need for shrewd conservation and noncarbon answers. It made me realize that he was part of a new category of voter. You've heard of "NASCAR Democrats"? Well, Corker is a "Prius Republican."

Energy is not just an economic matter, but a key to national security, said Representative Harman. Some of the people and places on which we rely for that precious and ironically named commodity—light, sweet crude—are dedicated to destroying our way of life, she said.

I wondered aloud whether McCain would want to risk alienating voters in, say, Florida, by lifting the federal ban on offshore drilling. I wondered what GOP Gov. Charlie Crist might say. Well, we got our answer a few hours later. McCain came out for lifting the ban—and so did Crist. The following day, so did President George W. Bush.

Sen. Barack Obama immediately branded the new GOP position an outrage and a potential environmental disaster. He said there were better, more immediately beneficial ways to deal with the crisis, such as tax rebates and new tax cuts for lower-income Americans.

So let the debate begin—again. It's a fundamental one we've been having for decades over the role of resources our research-rich but not always careful and thrifty country. Shell, which sponsored the forum, used to feature in its ads a fellow called the Shell Answer Man. He may still be around, but now even an oil company stresses the need for "dialogue." That's a sign of the times—and a good one.