A not-so-subtle signal to the Gang of 10

While the Gang of 10 tries to defuse a potent Republican issue on energy, John McCain keeps the fuse lit in a Weekly Standard interview.  McCain tells Stephen Hayes that he may rethink his opposition to drilling in ANWR, and promises to consult with Alaskan governor — and presumed VP short-lister — Sarah Palin on the issue.  His statement appears to cut the ground out from underneath the Gang of 10 and offer a more expansive view on drilling than first presumed:

In late June, McCain told voters in Missouri and Minnesota that he was open to receiving new information about exploration on Alaska’s coastal plain, but noted: “I certainly haven’t changed my position.”

In an interview with THE WEEKLY STANDARD aboard his campaign plane last week, McCain made clear he has not ruled out a change in his position–to one that endorses drilling in ANWR. “I continue to examine it,” he said. So does his staff. McCain’s campaign has been quietly studying the ANWR issue and discussing the potential consequences–good and bad–of a policy change.

But in our conversation on August 13, McCain added a new wrinkle. When I asked him if he had consulted Palin about ANWR, he said that he had not yet done so. He added, “I probably should,” he said. “I will.”

So I called Palin to ask what McCain can expect to hear. The answer is that Palin, who has been mentioned as a possible McCain running mate but has not been vetted, will make a straightforward case for drilling in ANWR. She says McCain’s willingness to take another look at ANWR is “very encouraging.”

Despite a massive shift in the popularity of drilling with the American electorate, ANWR remains controversial.  As much as 70% of voters favor drilling in the OCS and in interior lands to recover hundreds of billions of barrels of oil.  Support for drilling in ANWR still lags, though, with a bare plurality in most polling.  Many Americans still see this as a national park or preserve despite the pictures of the land in question revealing it to be a barren strip of tundra.

Why would McCain risk alienating centrists with environmental concerns to drift to a pro-ANWR drilling stance?  Technically, he hasn’t done it at all — he’s just held it out as a possibility.  If he intends to send a signal, its intended recipients will be pro-drilling conservatives … and compromisers in Congress.  No compromise with Democrats would ever include opening ANWR to its original intended purpose.  If McCain threatens to openly support ANWR drilling, it effectively torpedoes the Gang of 10 compromise.

The ANWR issue should really wait until we address the OCS and shale formations.  Republicans should focus on those two areas, which have widespread and bipartisan support, rather than get those tangled up into the more controversial ANWR reserves.  McCain knows this as well, but this rather obvious hint gives the GOP marching orders to keep fighting, rather than surrendering to a meaningless — and drill-less — compromise.