For most of the 2020 election cycle, Donald Trump has been desperately digging for an issue that might fracture Joe Biden’s winning coalition.
As the campaign nears its conclusion, Biden just served him up one, about wanting to “transition” away from oil.
This was the kind of mistake that is bound to happen when you serve two masters—the progressive base looking over your shoulder, and the voters you need to win on Nov. 3.
In case you missed it, the crucial exchange at Thursday night’s Democratic debate went like this:
Trump: “Would you close down the oil industry?”
Biden: “Yes. I would transition.”
Trump: “That is a big statement.”
Biden: “That is a big statement.”
Trump: “Why would you do that?”
“Because the oil industry pollutes, significantly,” Biden said—finally adding some context—“Because it has to be replaced by renewable energy over time, over time. And I’d stop giving to the oil industry, I’d stop giving them federal subsidies.”
“Basically, what he’s saying is that he is going to destroy the oil industry,” Trump responded. “Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania?” (The answer is that they might—if Trump’s campaign reminds them—and if the clip is carefully edited.)
Realizing the implications for 10 million jobs (not to mention, millions of votes) Biden felt compelled to try and clean up his comments, telling reporters that he “would not ‘ban’ fossil fuels or move away from them for ‘a long time,’” and that he was just talking about ending oil subsidies. But the damage was done. The tape now exists. And this is now part of a larger narrative that includes calling the Green New Deal “a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face,” as well as Biden’s various positions on banning fracking (including “no new fracking”).
You might ask if this issue will still resonate with voters. One poll even showed the majority of Pennsylvanians narrowly opposing fracking. But that was this summer. Interestingly, according to The Nation, “support for a fracking ban fell 16 points [nationwide] among Democrats after Biden and [Kamala] Harris opposed it in the debates.” In other words, the more Biden talks about it during debates, the worse.
Even if Biden isn’t personally harmed, there could still be ramifications. “This will hurt down-ballot Democrats in oil-producing swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, and even more in Texas, where Democrats entertained fantasies of turning the state blue,” predicts Ed Morrissey, of the conservative site HotAir. “Expect this answer to get hammered over and over again in the final ten days of the campaign,” he continued.
Almost immediately, vulnerable Democrats started distancing themselves from the comments. “I disagree with VP Biden's statement tonight,” New Mexico Rep. Xochitl Torres Small tweeted. “Energy is part of the backbone of New Mexico’s economy…” Likewise, Oklahoma Rep. Kendra Horn said, “Here’s one of the places Biden and I disagree. We must stand up for our oil and gas industry.”
Politicians have parochial and pecuniary reasons for their public policy preferences, but here’s why I think this issue is even bigger: Biden calls climate change an “existential threat,” but America faces other existential threats—such as China and Russia (there’s a reason why Vladimir Putin hates fracking). As Daniel Yergin, author of The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations, tells me: “Overall, this new position resulting from fracking is a fundamental contribution to U.S. energy security.”
Energy policy is about jobs and money, yes, but it also has national security and geopolitical ramifications. “The shale revolution and America's regaining energy independence have bolstered U.S. foreign policy and augmented America's position in the world,” Yergin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, continues.
The good news is that—if Biden’s caveats are to be believed—this transition will be slow and prudent. But I guess we have to take his word for that?
Trump now has fodder for a final round of ads. If the election comes down to Pennsylvania, this could be a big deal, hearkening back to Hillary Clinton’s “We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” gaffe. The whole deal with Biden was that he was supposed to avoid that particular kind of blunder.