A Pipeline Or an Issue?

Congressional Republicans are openly gloating that they are in the process of “trapping” the president by forcing him to veto legislation authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline. Here’s TPM’s Sahil Kapur:

Democrats argue that the debate largely ceased to be about the pipeline itself after Republicans demanded as part of last month’s payroll tax cut package that Obama make a decision on the project by late February. Even though Obama seemed to be leaning in its favor, he had said earlier that he needed more time to evaluate the environmental and health consequences. And so, his administration argued, the GOP essentially forced him to turn down the application from TransCanada.

Republicans seemed all too aware of this possibility. “It’s a question of whether we’d rather have the pipeline or the issue,” a GOP aide said in December. They chose the issue, bringing into question how much they care about the pipeline itself. Indeed, not forcing a decision would have neutralized the politics surrounding the matter.

There’s nothing new about this sort of gamesmanship, but at some point, it can begin to backfire if the president continues to maintain he has not definitively decided against the pipeline but simply wants to ensure that it will be built with some attention paid to safety issues and unnecessary environmental damage. Republicans are in danger of forgetting that ambiguity on complex issues can be compelling to voters who hear pols ranting about “Keystone” and aren’t quite sure whether the talk is about cheap oil or cheap beer.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.