TALKIN’ ABOUT ENERGY….In an era of $4 gasoline, is it political suicide to advocate policies that would send that price even higher? Or is it better to go into full pander mode and insist that there’s no “cap” in your cap-and-trade plan; that a gas tax holiday is sound public policy; that offshore drilling is suddenly a great idea; and that maybe you’ll take a second look at drilling in ANWR?

John McCain pretty clearly believes in the pander approach, but what about Barack Obama? He seems to be sticking to his energy guns so far, but there’s a lot of people who think this is a political loser. The public is pissed, this storyline goes, and it doesn’t want airy wonkery. It just wants lower gas prices.

But here’s an alternative suggestion: go the full monty in the other direction. Make a major speech in the “no easy solutions” vein and attack McCain for panicking and pandering. The basic pitch would be this: in the long tem gasoline prices are going to go up no matter what we do. But this can happen in one of two ways.

First, it can happen by simply doing nothing and allowing demand to increase — as it will after the initial shock of $4 gas wears off and people go back to their old driving habits. This will lead to higher wellhead prices for oil, and the beneficiaries will be OPEC and big multinational oil companies.

Second, it can happen via a concerted effort to raise the price of energy via a cap-and-trade plan. This will reduce demand and lead to stabilized oil prices. The net price of oil will still go up thanks to the cost of auctioning off emission permits, but the additional money goes into American coffers, where it can be used to improve mass transit; fund clean energy research; reduce the impact on the poor; and help offset other taxes.

I’m not the kind of person who can figure out a way to explain this that appeals to ordinary voters. But Obama is. The basic question is, who would you rather see benefit from higher oil prices: Saudi sheikhs or the American treasury? Because that’s pretty much your choice.