What GOP Debate Tells Us About Energy Policy

New Hampshire politics have always been tough to pin down. But this much is for sure: more than any other state, it is a political arena where presidential aspirations gain legitimacy and where national agendas are set.

So it was with that political reality that New Hampshire — and the rest of America — welcomed the unofficial start of the 2012 presidential race with a Republican primary debate that was conspicuously devoid of any discussion on energy policy or the emerging green jobs market.

So does this mean that any meaningful dialogue about our energy future isn’t on the table for the 2012 elections? Well, yes and no.

It’s hard to imagine that the Republican party is going to seriously weigh in on our energy future — other that resurrecting the chants of “Drill, Baby, Drill.” On Monday, there were plenty of chances for candidates to state their position beyond the cursory “end our dependence on foreign oil” (read: “increase our own production of fossil fuels.”) But they didn’t go there, and neither did the line of questioning from the reporters on hand or the audience members selected to ask questions. Maybe it should have.

A recent Rasmussen poll showed that 57 percent of Americans think renewable sources are the best long-term solution to our energy needs. The problem is that energy is far down on the scale on what Americans want now, which is clearly jobs and financial security.

The real energy debate will likely happen during the general elections, where clear distinctions can be drawn and where mandates become defined. The best strategy for Obama? Use the modern Republican mantra of “follow the will of the voters” to force the GOP’s hand. The GOP used that rationale to lambast the administration for passing a health care bill the Republicans said the nation did not want.

It’s increasingly unlikely that the price of oil will drop sharply, or that oil producing regions will become significantly more stable before the 2012 elections. This means that Americans’ view on renewable energy as a strong solution are likely to remain consistent until then.

It’s hard to say at this point which Republican candidate on the New Hampshire stage Monday night would be most open to an honest dialogue about energy policy. At this point, they all seem to be shifting hard to the right, despite past stances.

If the health care legislation is any indication, a comprehensive energy policy with a strong focus on renewables will in many ways need the backing of the Republican Party, and perhaps by someone on the stage Monday night. If the renewable industry’s poll numbers hover in the majority, then the debate can be defined by the potential for job creation, manufacturing and true energy independence.

But Monday’s debate shows we’re not likely to go there during the primary season.

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Steve Leone has been a journalist for more than 15 years and has worked for news organizations in Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, Virginia and California.

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