Fineman: Why Paris Hilton Is Right About Energy

Even if you know this statistic it's worth repeating: In the mid 1970s, the last time we were in a dither about energy, we were getting a third of our petroleum from abroad. Now, decades later, we buy more than two thirds of it from overseas. As T. Boone Pickens says, it's the largest transfer of wealth in history, with the possible exception of the armadas of gold and silver the Spanish took home from the New World centuries ago.

The new "oil shock"—not an Arab oil embargo this time, but a scary run-up in the price of crude—has dragged us back to an old storyline and a confrontation with the monsters we failed to destroy decades ago. We're still using up our resources too fast, damaging the environment unnecessarily and becoming too dependent on others for our survival. This time, the challenges are even more difficult to deal with. China and India are growing too fast; oil producers are choking on dollars whose value they distrust; Russia and Venezuela (and some Muslim countries) are antagonistic, turbo-charged petroligarchies.

So where should we turn for inspiration and leadership? To Paris Hilton, of course!

I mention her not only because I am betting she looks better in a one-piece bathing suit than John McCain or even Barack Obama. No, we need Paris because her cheerful and sensible approach to the energy problem—encapsulated in her own poolside "ad"—is a lesson in leadership to the two "real" presidential candidates.

Paris's message: don't stress, don't dis each other's ideas, let's just try everything!

It doesn't get any smarter than that.

McCain and Obama, by contrast, are engaged in a phony war that refuses to accept the Hiltonian point: we need every tactic in this new energy war. We need all the production, conservation and research strategies we can imagine. Nothing should be belittled, or dismissed; everything should be attempted. We can't afford to think otherwise.

At the Aspen Institute's Ideas Festival recently, I was struck by the fact that the captains of industry from Silicon Valley and the academic and journalistic muckety-mucks agreed on only one thing: we need to tackle the energy challenge with the urgency and imagination of the Manhattan Project and the Marshall Plan combined. Men and women who are paid to see over the horizon, and who have a good track record of doing so, said privately that we are a decade from ruin at best.

So what are McCain and Obama doing? Arguing about tire gauges and offshore drilling!

It didn't have to come to this.

Perhaps because of his national-security and Navy background, McCain was the first of the two candidates to see the urgency of the issue. The other, less generous explanation, is that McCain needed to tap into the old Bush crowd at the Houston Petroleum Club, and that the only way to overcome their skepticism of him was for him to abandon his semi-green stance on things and go pedal-to-the-metal on the need for more production. And it is true that McCain has racked up lots of donations.

For whatever reason, he was the first of the two candidates to capture the urgency that the American people feel. His Lexington Project was unveiled early this summer at a time when Obama, who had just wrapped up the Democratic nomination, wasn't paying much attention. And to McCain's credit, his plan does have an all-hands-on-deck quality to it, stressing production, to be sure, but also creative tax and investment notions for pushing the technology and conservation envelope.

But in recent days, McCain has gotten sidetracked by some of his own (and his advisers) juvenile rhetoric, as they attempt to portray Obama as an unmanly and out-of-touch Ivy League fop. McCain has wasted valuable time ridiculing Obama for his sensible reminder that individual self-help acts on conservation—like making sure your automobile tires are properly inflated—can add up to tremendous energy savings.

Eventually, McCain was forced to concede that everyone from the American Automobile Association to the Department of Energy has been saying exactly the same thing about tires. In fact, I'm sure even the guys at NASCAR check the pressure on the tires of their civilian cars, not to mention the ones they drive around the track.

As for Obama, his own New Energy for America Plan, released last week, bears similarities to McCain's in terms of a cap on carbon emissions and trading of emission rights; various tax incentives and awards to push the technology of alternative fuels, especially for cars. He, too, is in favor of a "smart grid" to wheel power more efficiently as we increase of reliance on electricity to power all kinds of vehicles.

But Obama can't let go of the chance to portray McCain as a mindless, rapacious driller and digger who eats uranium for breakfast and quaffs kerosene with his coterie of Big Oil friends. Obama's plan dwells on problems associated with nuclear power, and none of its benefits (such as the complete absence of carbon emissions). In his original proposal, Obama flatly opposed opening up new offshore areas to oil exploration, too.

As rapacious as McCain is, however, Obama has now joined him—at least part way—in agreeing that some drilling in newly permitted offshore spots may in fact be a good idea. Obama knows the truth. New ocean prospecting won't produce immediate results, but it can at the least be an expression of American determination—and that can have an effect in and of itself.

Just ask Paris.