Does Flip-Flopping on Off-Shore Drilling Make it a Non-Issue?

Why do three-quarters of all likely voters, and nearly 60% of Democrats even, support off-shore oil drilling?

Is it because it’s gotten safer or cleaner? No.

Is it because we’ve decided that, what with all those dangerous rays of sunlight, we are less enamored of our beaches and coastline? No.

Is it because oil rigs are better looking than they used to be, or because we’re feeling sorry for the domestic oil companies who aren’t making enough money, need more sources of profit closer to home? No and no and no.

There is only one reason for the shift in popular support for domestic drilling, for an issue that used to be a political loser now smelling like a bouquet of roses.

The reason is the price of gas, plain and simple. Some days, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I pay for gas for three cars: mine, my daughter’s, and my babysitter’s. The way I figure it, I pay more for gas every month than my father used to earn in a month.

I pay more for gas every month than I used to pay for car payments when I bought my first car. I pay more for gas; you know what I mean. Everyone knows what I mean. We stand at the pump and come up with the lines. It’s ridiculous. It’s absurd.

It’s enough to make someone running for president want to take the issue right off the table.
And that is precisely where it’s going.

John McCain used to be against off-shore drilling. He used to support the federal ban. Now he doesn’t. He flip-flopped.

Flip flopping is not a good thing in politics, generally speaking. Being for something before you were against it, or against it before you were for it, generally hurts whatever “it” is.

But being on the unpopular side of a basic pocketbook issue is far worse.. Better to look like a gymnast than like a guy who doesn’t know what it costs to fill up – or care.

So what does Barack Obama do about John McCain’s flip-flop?

He has two choices. He can attack him for it. Or he can do his own.

Guess which one he’s going to do.

The first reaction of the Obama campaign when McCain did his flip-flop was to call attention to his inconsistency. Look at the flip-flopper. Will the real John McCain please stand up.

The problem with this strategy is that it calls attention to the fact that he may be a flip flopper, but you’re just plain wrong, politically speaking, of course. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. The higher the price of gas goes, the more foolish consistent opposition to drilling starts looking.

So what if it will be years before we see the benefits of off-shore drilling.

So what if you could save more fuel by maintaining proper tire pressure.

So what if drilling brings with it the danger of spills that could damage one of our most precious resources.

Are you for dependence on foreign oil?

Do you like seeing all that money being shipped off to those bad guys in the Middle East? Have you been to a gas station lately?

So here comes Obama. In recent days, Obama has been softening his opposition to off-shore drilling. He is sounding more and more like John McCain. Two can flip-flop too. And when they do, what happens is that the issue gets taken off the table. Is John McCain really going to attack Barack Obama for not flip-flopping early enough? No.

Are we going to sit around and compare the arcs of the flip-flops, to see whose was bigger? No.

An issue isn’t an issue in presidential politics unless one candidate is on one side and the other is on the other; or unless one has always been there and the other is a newcomer.

Two flip-flops make a non-issue. Unfortunately, they don’t make the price of gasoline come down. Sorry about that.

You mean you thought this was actually about paying less at the pump? C’mon. Get serious. That won’t happen for a very long time. If ever. And who knows how many flip flops there will be time for by then.

Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

A woman of firsts, she was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review and the first woman to head a national presidential campaign (Dukakis). Estrich is committed to paving the way for women to assume positions of leadership.

Books by Estrich include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders." Her book "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women," is a departure from her other works, encouraging women to take care of themselves by engaging the mind to fight for a healthy body. Her latest book, The Los Angeles Times bestseller, "Sex & Power," takes an impassioned look at the division of power between men and women in the American workforce, proving that the idea of gender equality is still just an idea.