Running on Empty

John McCain was willing to lose the presidency over illegal immigration. Now he's willing to lose it over the high price of gas.

A year ago most everyone wrote off McCain's candidacy in the wake of the failed comprehensive immigration bill he co-sponsored with Ted Kennedy. Critics bristled, not just at what they called amnesty, but because lawmakers would have granted legal status to millions of lawbreakers before our borders were shut off to millions more.

McCain never said he was wrong, but finally conceded that his constituents don't trust Congress to protect our borders. So McCain promised to make enforcement a first priority.

Now, however, an issue more potent than immigration may be McCain's undoing.

Not the Iraq war. McCain believes we were right to fight it, that we're winning and that, despite the mainstream media's best efforts to ignore success, voters will not buy Barack Obama's call for a quick pullout.

McCain also believes he can best Obama on economic policy. Although Democrats warn of a third Bush term, McCain now believes Bush's across-the-board tax cuts (which he initially opposed) lifted our country out of the recession inherited from Bill Clinton, and have sustained relatively low inflation, low interest rates and low unemployment. McCain says Obama's plan to expand social spending by raising taxes on high income earners, corporations and capital gains would torpedo growth.

But the issue that may sink McCain is energy. High gas prices are a result of increasing world demand, speculation, a weak dollar, and also -- crucially in many voters' minds - America's dependence on foreign oil. We import more now than we did 35 years ago, during the first oil shock. McCain speaks of easing federal environmental restrictions on nuclear plants, clean coal, wind, and non-corn ethanol. But McCain does not push energy independence with sufficient energy. He does not promise the All-American commitment that produced an atomic bomb during World War Two, and two dozen years later put a man on the Moon. And so he passes up a great opportunity, for his campaign and for the nation.

One reason is that McCain considers himself an environmentalist in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt. That's why the Arizona senator is at best tepid about lifting restrictions on oil drilling. He opposes any exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, even though proponents say improved drilling techniques would have negligible environmental impact. McCain also would let the governors of Florida and California veto off-shore oil exploration, even if it is far off from our shores -- in the same international waters where Cuba and China are now exploring. And about our greatest domestic oil reserves -- the Bakken Oil Formation stretching across North Dakota and Montana, which could produce more oil than Saudi Arabia - McCain says almost nothing.

There's little chance that Barack Obama will seize the initiative. Democrats are too closely tied to environmental activists to support nuclear plants or coal, much less domestic oil drilling. Their plan is to impose what they call windfall profits taxes - although polls show voters increasingly realize that American oil companies are not to blame for higher prices.

So while the energy crunch could get Republicans firing on all cylinders, McCain must heed his critics -- as he did belatedly regarding border enforcement -- or the GOP nominee may be running on empty.