Political parties work hard to set the agenda. As a campaign heats, they want Americans to think about certain issues, and therefore not think about other issues. Four years ago, the Republicans wanted the agenda to focus upon illegal immigration, instead of Iraq. This year’s subject, according to Arizona Republican Party chairman Randy Pullen, is the price of gasoline and diesel fuel.

In Rancho Vistoso recently, Pullen described fuel prices as the “dominant issue” in this year’s campaign. Not the wars in Afghanistan and particularly in Iraq, where fewer Americans are being killed and mayhem is down since the Bush-ordered surge. Not the economy, deemed “sluggish” by the media even though Gross Domestic Product was up .9 of 1 percent in the first quarter of 2008. Not the housing “crisis.” Not the millions of Americans who do not have health insurance. Not leadership ability, brains, national security, Social Security, taxes, the federal deficit, illegal immigration …

Let’s presume Pullen is correct. What does that say about us? First off, what a country. As we celebrate America this Fourth of July, let’s be thankful the price of gasoline is the biggest issue we collectively face.

Secondly, if Pullen is correct, it’s imperative that political leadership articulates the issue more specifically. America’s energy situation is terrifically complex. Over-simplification doesn’t help.

Energy economies can be divided into two surprisingly distinct sectors, transportation and electric, with little crossover. If the price and availability of electricity is the big issue — and it’s not, best we can tell — America is well-positioned to solve it. Give incentives for solar and wind development. Use our abundant coal reserves, and figure out how to cut greenhouse gas and pollution emissions from coal-fired plants close to zero. Build more nuclear reactors.

All of this requires political will, of course, and right now there’s political “won’t.”

But we’re really concerned about the price of gasoline and diesel fuel, right? Let’s talk about it, then. Let’s think about it, and consider these facts among the many:

• Nearly all — 95 percent — of the nation’s transportation energy consumption in 2007 came from petroleum, according to the Department of Energy.

• We used 18.9 million barrels of oil a day in 2007. Of that, 6.9 million was produced in America, and we imported 12 million barrels a day.

• Where do the imports come from? In 1997, 70 percent came from countries in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. In 2007, the sum was 45 percent, primarily from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Venezuela. Imports from Iraq, never above 1 million barrels a day, were a half-million barrels (less than 5 percent of all imports) a day in 2007. So, maybe the Iraq War wasn’t about oil after all. Our biggest sources? Canada and Mexico.

• Americans drove 1.4 billion fewer highway miles in April 2008 than they did in April 2007, according to the Department of Transportation.

• Federal taxes on a gallon of gas are decreasingly significant. The Feds get 18.4 cents a gallon, which is less than 5 percent of the price of a $4 gallon. A federal gas tax holiday, as proposed by Sen. John McCain, only serves to reduce the money needed for American highways.

The volume of available energy facts is boggling. What’s the sum?

It’d be refreshing to see candidates talk about our specific transportation energy needs, and how to solve them. How about the use of coal liquefaction, converting coal into diesel fuel without burning the coal? How about a basement price of $4 for a gallon of gasoline, as suggested by The New York Times’ Tom Friedman, thereby encouraging conservation, and stimulating domestic development while the free market pursues alternatives? Rather than tax the oil companies, why not let the market make them less relevant? And where, oh where, is the recognition that nothing will happen overnight?

The dominant issue in this political campaign should not be an issue. Rather, America really needs thoughtful, intelligent, respectful, discourse on the nation’s complicated challenges.

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