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A little 'middle of the road' would be a refreshing change

June 06, 2010|By TIM ROWLAND

We're all familiar with the axiom that government is your enemy -- until you need a friend. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Gulf of Mexico, where the same people who were furious over government bailouts of incompetent financiers are now furious that the government has failed to bail out incompetent oil drillers.

But this fun fact also reveals what might be a more significant truth -- that of the two, politics is a greater evil than government.

I realize that this is the finest of lines; government and politics kind of walk hand in hand. But when you think about it, government is merely inept accidentally, while politics is warped on purpose.

Politics in America has always been vicious, but it is only since the information age -- when any brain-dead kook can get himself on TV or the Internet and spout gibberish -- that it has become so all-consuming.

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I don't know that a lot of people back in the '30s sat around arguing whether the Dust Bowl was caused by Democrats or Republicans. But you could bet they would today.

So many people today see everything, everything, through political lenses. It's as if the events themselves are real only in the sense that they can be used against the opposing party.

People will actually try to convince you that a Republican president could have diverted a hurricane, had he really tried. People will actually try to convince you that the Democrats forced Wall Street to create bogus investment instruments and then insure them against loss, even when they were bound to fail.

But we expect that out of the ideologues. It's kind of their job, just as it always falls to some attorney to represent a bank robber who's been caught red-handed.

What's dangerous is when politics becomes more important than the government it produces -- when process outweighs action.

Thirty years ago, the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant threw the nation's energy policy into the political arena, and we've been paying ever since.

At Three Mile Island, a reactor lost coolant, and employees who were not fully familiar with the technology reacted poorly. It could have been disastrous, but as it was, no one died and most experts believe that no one even got sick.

Looking back, the bigger disaster was that energy issues were overcome by political issues and our nuclear program ground to a halt. Today, more than a few environmentalists who used Three Mile Island as a tool against nuclear power are acknowledging that the alternative -- dependence on high-carbon fuels -- is worse. (I was one of those environmentalists by the way, but there's no sense dwelling on that).

Of course now that we're aware of carbon footprints and such, we're getting back into the nuclear business, not that this is any immediate comfort to people in the Gulf. Oil has become so precious that companies will live on the edge of the edge in order to sop up all they can -- and in the process they validate the notion that oil spills are not a question of if, but when.

The BP spill is far more disastrous than Three Mile Island, guaranteeing that our energy policy will once again be bounced back into the political arena. Indeed, the push against off-shore drilling is in full force. Even those who once bellowed "Drill, baby, drill" have markedly changed their tunes as they try to somehow frame this calamity as the fault of the sitting president.

And maybe we'll call a halt to off-shore drilling, just as we did with nuclear energy. And we will be just as wrong.

Oil is a messy necessity, and unless we want to be totally beholden to overseas production, we will need to drill off shore because that's where the oil is. The obvious answer is to drill where we need to do so, but at the same time make sure it's done under the watchful eye of competent and independent government inspectors.

Here, however, we run into the mirror image of the anti-drilling Democrats -- that would be the "no government intervention of any kind" Republicans. So we have two political forces steering the ship, and they're both wrong. Yet because politics has become so all-consuming, voices of reason will be drowned out.

Jim Hightower once said that the only thing you'll find in the middle of the road is two yellow lines and dead armadillos. A raging (and highly entertaining) populist, he had no interest in seeking a reasonable consensus. But for the rest of us it would be a refreshing change.

Tim Rowland is a columnist for The Herald-Mail. Check out his Rowland Rant at http://www.herald-mail.com.

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