A few months before the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama gave a speech on energy policy and his sweeping plans related to alternative fuels, efficiency programs, smart-grid technology, etc. In the subsequent Q&A, a voter asked what individuals can do to help, and the candidate recommended a few simple steps, including keeping tires inflated.
It seemed wholly unremarkable, until Republicans decided this was hilarious. The McCain campaign began waving tire gauges at campaign rallies, insisting that properly-inflated tires represented the entirety of the Obama energy plan. The Democratic candidate said at the time, "It's like these guys take pride in being ignorant."
Four years later, not much has changed.
President Obama spoke in Miami last week about energy policy, touting his "all-of-the-above" agenda, and sharing his comprehensive vision. Towards the end of the speech, he mentioned, "We're making new investments in the development of gasoline and diesel and jet fuel that's actually made from a plant-like substance -- algae."
Like it or not, algae is part of the energy debate.
And just like the 2008 tire gauges, Republicans have decided to ignore the other 3,000 words Obama said about energy policy, and focus exclusively on the one word they found amusing.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday attacked President Obama for his recent suggestion that still-developing technology of algae-based fuels could help bring down gas prices in the United States.
"I think the American people realize that a president who's out there talking about algae when they're having to choose between whether to buy groceries or to fill up the tank is the one who's out of touch," said McConnell.
In his speech on the Senate floor, McConnell made it seem as if the very notion of biofuel was outlandish to the point of absurdity. "As millions of Americans groaned at the rising cost of a gallon of gasoline, the president took algae as a substitute for gas," the Republican leader said, adding for emphasis, "Algae as a substitute for gas."
It appears to be part of a coordinated assault -- McConnell's nonsense coincided perfectly with a push from Charles Krauthammer, Rush Limbaugh, and others.
It's hard not to notice that these guys still take pride in being ignorant.
The obvious problem with this is that Obama's energy policy is pretty compressive. If the president had spoken exclusively about algae and biofuels, the right would have a legitimate complaint, but it was one sensible sentence in a longer, broader speech.
Some GOP pollster somewhere probably said "algae" is a funny word, so it should be the basis for a sustained attack, but that doesn't make the new rhetorical offensive any less infantile.
But there's an even more salient problem. As Michael McAuliff reported, Republicans have long believed in federally-funded research related to algae.
Republicans used to think that all of that was at least part of an energy policy. In fact, many were so convinced, they wrote letters to the Department of Energy asking the Obama administration to support algae projects.
In September, 2009, Nebraska Republican Sen. Mike Johanns lobbied for funding for the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, a project that only offered the hope that such technology could be brought to his state. [...]
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), now one of Obama's fiercest alternative energy critics over the failure of solar firm Solyndra, also sought support for the project in an October 2009 letter. "Development of algae as a viable and sustainable source of transportation fuel is critical to decreasing America's dependence on imported oil, while creating new sources of meaningful green collar jobs."
Similarly, former House Republican Conference Chairman Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) argued that algae was a near-magic bullet to solve American energy problems in a July 2009 letter that supported a grant for a company called Stellarwind BioEnergy.
Look, I don't really expect Republicans to embrace the entirety of the White House energy plan, but it's not unreasonable to think GOP policymakers can at least in engage in the debate with some semblance of maturity and/or seriousness of purpose.
This is a critically important issue. If Mitch McConnell and his cohorts could consider the policy like grown-ups, we'll all be much better off.