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The Gang of 10: Obama’s Checkmate?

I try and avoid using grandiose rhetoric of this kind. But there is a potential checkmate scenario sitting on the board for Barack Obama, and it involves the ‘Gang of 10’ energy compromise bill currently being floated by a bipartisan group of ten senators.

The compromise proposal — formally the New Energy Reform Act of 2008 — is a complicated piece of legislation, but involves three or four basic components:

— Opens additional drilling areas in the Gulf of Mexico, and allows Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia to elect to permit drilling off their coasts. Existing bans on drilling off the West Coast, including in the ANWR, would be preserved.
— Dedicates $20 billion to R&D on alternative fuels for motor vehicles.
— Extends a series of tax credits and incentives, such as for the purchase of hybrid vehicles.
— Funds the above — at total cost of about $84 billion — by closing tax loopholes for petroleum companies, in conjunction with licensing fees.

Barack Obama has come out with lukewarm support for the bill. McCain has come out with what amounts to lukewarm opposition to it, objecting to the removal of the oil company tax loopholes.

There would be tremendous electoral upside to Obama in making his support for the legislation full-throated, by signing on as a co-sponsor to the legislation and making the Gang of 10 a Gang of 11. Consider the benefits of such action:

– Would take the drilling issue off the table. Offshore drilling polls well, favored by roughly 2:1 margins. But more than that, it gives the Republicans a rhetorically effective detour by which they can bypass most of the debate on energy policy, and much of the debate on the economy in general. The passage of a bill — particularly one that had Obama’s support — would mitigate the issue and force the Republicans to argue the economy from much weaker ground, such as the Democrat-friendly territory of social security, health care, and middle class tax cuts.

– Would make Obama look bipartisan. The Republicans supporting the bill aren’t your usual cast of Gordon Smiths and Susan Collinses. Instead, they are center-right types: Saxby Chambliss, John Thune, Lindsey Graham, Bob Corker, and Johnny Isakson. Obama’s claims to bipartisanship would be very credible.

Would make McCain look obstructionist. The converse of this is also true, substantially undermining Obama’s claims to be a moderate/maverick.

Would highlight McCain’s loyalty to Big Oil. Even worse for McCain is his reason for opposing the bill — his refusal to remove oil company tax loopholes. In this populist climate, and particularly in the wake of Exxon’s record-setting profits, that is a potentially lethal position to hold.

Would recast ‘flip-flops’ as ‘compromises’. One of the potential drawbacks to Obama voicing more aggressive support for the legislation is that the McCain campaign would try and highlight is reversal on the offshore drilling issue. However, Obama has a couple of relatively persuasive defenses. Firstly, McCain flip-flopped himself on this very issue. And secondly, Obama can begin to build a narrative that explains his flip-flops by some means other than electoral opportunism. Namely, flexibility is required in order to engineer bipartisan compromise: he is willing to support drilling, but only if oil company tax loopholes are closed, and only if there are provisions to invest those tax revenues in alternative fuels. Since essentially all of Obama’s shifts have been toward the center rather than the left, this might pay dividends not only on the drilling issue itself, but also in other instances in which he has changed his position.

Would help Obama in electorally significant states. The bill is rather cleverly engineered in terms of electoral politics. It permits drilling in the swing states of Virgnia, North Carolina and Florida, but does not permit it on the West Coast, where the measure is significantly less popular. There might also be some secondary benefit to Obama in supporting the moderate Democratic senators who have championed the legislation. If Kent Conrad shoots a commercial in North Dakota, and says “This man had my back when the chips were down and it was time to lower your gas prices and secure America’s energy future”, that is very persuasive stuff.

Would distance Obama from Pelosi and Reid. Increasingly, the right is trying to lump Obama together with Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and the extremely unpopular institution of the Congress. Supporting the compromise would allow Obama to keep Pelosi, who has been attempting to prevent a drilling bill from coming to a floor vote in the House, at arm’s-length, and create the perception that he is in charge of his own destiny.

Preempts a non-compromise drilling bill from passing. And frankly, it might also be doing Pelosi a favor. Intrade now forecasts that there is about a 50:50 chance of a drilling bill of some kind passing by the end of the year. What Pelosi is essentially doing is gambling that gas prices will decline over the summer while the Congress is on recess. If gas prices continue to go up, however, Pelosi could face an insurrection from swing-district Democrats, putting her at a Morton’s Fork between allowing a vote on a drilling bill that wouldn’t include compromise provisions (but which nevertheless would almost certainly pass), or attempting to plug the dam at the potential cost of a material number of House seats.

Preempts McCain from doing the same. I believe that McCain made a significant and potentially even fatal mistake by opposing the tax loophole closure provision of the bill. But Obama may only have a limited amount of time to exploit it. There are too many electoral benefits to this bill for one or the other candidates not to come out vociferously in favor of it, and if Obama does not do so first, McCain may do so instead. Ninety percent of electoral politics is possession, and whomever grabs the apple first will make the other candidate look like a follower.

Frankly, it would not surprise me if the Obama campaign is already keyed into this maneuver. Last Friday, they sent up a trial balloon in the form of Obama’s softly-voiced support for the compromise. The trial balloon did not burst; Obama took very little flak for his apparent flip-flop on the drilling issue, whereas the Republicans were reduced to a frivolous taking point about tire gauges. Then this week, Obama began to hammer McCain on his support for oil company tax breaks, highlighting McCain’s reason for opposing the compromise measure. Everything is all set up for Obama to move on the issue literally overnight. If he gets the optics right, he will leave McCain in an unenviable position.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.