The Magazine

Uncorking Energy Supplies

Tennessee's Bob Corker has quickly made himself the Senate's oil and gas expert.

Jun 30, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 40 • By FRED BARNES
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Bob Corker's introduction to the nation and to politicians in Washington was not auspicious. In his race against Democratic representative Harold Ford for an open Senate seat in Tennessee in 2006, the Republican National Committee aired a TV ad featuring a white woman who says she "met Harold at the Playboy party." In the ad's tag line, she adds, "Harold, call me," and winks at the camera. The ad drew enormous attention and, since Ford is African American, was attacked as racist. Corker urged the RNC to take the ad off the air. It was too late. He won narrowly, though the ad probably hurt his campaign more than it helped.

Today, after 18 months in the Senate, Corker has overcome the stain of being linked, if only involuntarily, to an infamous episode. By carefully following a set of rules that many senators ignore, he's become a serious player on Capitol Hill, someone who draws attention for his ideas on policy, especially on the biggest policy issue of the day, energy.

The rules, which require a touch of humility, are very simple: (1) concentrate on a few issues; (2) learn a lot about them; (3) don't overreach by trying to tackle too much of your chosen issues at once; and (4) don't blab about every other issue that comes up. Adhere to these rules and your moment of prominence should come. Corker's has, sooner rather than later.

Republican John Cornyn of Texas boils the rules down to a single sentence: "The best way to move up in the Senate is either to be here a long time or be an expert on something." Corker, 55, chose three issues to study: fiscal matters, health care, and energy. On each, he aimed "to know as much or more" as any Senate colleague.

Last winter, he proved to be a fiscal tightwad when he was one of 16 senators to vote against the economic stimulus package. "I find something extremely inappropriate about a deficit-ridden federal government borrowing money from our grandchildren and sprinkling it across the country for a short-term fix that will do little, if anything, to jump-start our troubled economy," he said.

Many senators know a lot about fiscal issues. Far fewer are knowledgeable about the nexus between energy policy and the heralded "cap and trade" system for reducing global warming. On this issue, Corker has become an expert, at least by Senate standards.

A year ago, he joined Democratic senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico on a trip to Europe to learn about how cap and trade had worked there. They talked to E.U. officials, carbon traders, and utility industry leaders. Corker's conclusion: Cap and trade is a failure. Carbon emissions in Europe had actually exceeded the cap.

Two months later, he spent two days in Greenland on a Senate excursion led by Democrat senator Barbara Boxer of California, viewing glaciers melting due to climate change. He was not overly alarmed, recalling that in any earlier climate cycle potatoes were grown in Greenland and that it had gotten its name for a reason.

While in Greenland, he met Dr. Minik Rosing, a Danish climate scientist. "Corker, here's the deal," the senator quoted the scientist as saying. Nothing should be done to curb global warming that might be harmful if the fears about climate turn out to be unfounded, Rosing said.

Corker was taken with this advice. His goal became a policy hat trick: to deal with global warming while achieving energy security and continued economic growth. "There are some rubs" among the three goals, he concedes.

He argues that "our fossil fuels are a bridge to the future." Exploiting the oil and natural gas reserves offshore and underneath federal lands over the next several decades will provide time for alternative sources of energy to be developed--without harming the country in the meantime.

When the Senate debate on global warming legislation began in early June, Corker took a major role. At one point, he says, Democrat John Kerry approached him on the Senate floor and suggested a handful of senators work out an agreement. Corker was interested. But when he insisted increased oil and natural gas production would have to be part of any deal, Kerry balked, and the brief negotiations ended.

Corker focused his attention on cap and trade, not the broader issue of climate change or the science behind it. "Debating that today is counterproductive," he told me last week. On the cap and trade bill, he offered three amendments (which were never voted on as the bill died prematurely) and infuriated the legislation's chief proponent, Boxer, in the process.