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Oil, SUVs, and international political power

Thunder Horse oil rig will drill enough petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico each day to fuel 90 SUVs driving a million miles, owners BP PLC and ExxonMobil say.
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San Antonio (Texas)
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(CNN) -- Last year, there was a lot of speculation that high gas prices would affect the U.S. presidential election. Surprisingly, they didn't, at least not in any significant manner.

But, while higher prices at the pump did not produce any dramatic political upsets in the United States, from Iran to Russia those same gas prices have profoundly affected the international political arena.

In particular, $2 per gallon gas has meant higher profits for major oil producing countries and consequently has emboldened them to take more aggressive political stands in a range of currently important showdowns from the Iranian nuclear stand-off to U.S. concerns over Russian anti-democratic changes.

Indeed, Russia has made so much money over the last year in oil profits that it has not only paid its loans to Americans and others, but it has actually pre-paid some loans in a dramatic sign of greater financial health.

Similar things are true with Iran and Venezuela. Consequently, the United States has had less financial leverage than it did just five years ago to get some nations to follow its lead.

While America has lost some financial leverage in the international political arena, China has gained some. China is now the third largest importer of oil in the world (behind the United States and Japan) and as such is an oil buyer that controversial oil producers can sometimes do business with instead of the United States if necessary.

China's financial leverage is multiplied by the fact that the oil it is buying is strengthening its economy (from making umbrellas and shoes to running biotech labs and computer centers), and in turn, leading China to buy not just oil, but other products from other countries.

Hence, there is a great deal of excitement in South America, Africa and Asia about new China trade pacts. And U.S. threats to trade less with even non-oil producing countries also has less impact than it did even three or four years ago.

This is not to say the United States is not the most dominant economic country in the world. It is -- our GDP is nearly twice that of the second wealthiest country. This is also not meant to imply that financial leverage is the only kind of leverage available in resolving international disputes; or that the United States does not frequently hold a dominant moral as well as military advantage in many international disagreements.

It is only meant to highlight that as we see the United States struggle to resolve tense international situations, it's worth understanding that fundamental disagreements over policy, anger over the U.S. invasion of Iraq or jealously may not be the only factors at work.

Indeed, gas guzzling SUVs and high home heating bills in the U.S. along with China's increasing consumption of oil are at least partially altering the negotiating stage for critical international issues from nuclear proliferation to democratic reform.

Big five in '05

2004 is gone, but there are still a lot of intriguing campaigns this year. Beginning Tuesday, five of the nation's 10 largest cities have mayoral races in 2005: New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, Detroit and San Antonio.

In addition to being entertaining and intriguing political stories, the outcome of these local races could be significant for three reasons.

First, the winners could become major national figures a la Rudy Giuliani in recent times and John Lindsay (New York), Hubert Humphrey (Minneapolis) and Tom Bradley (Los Angeles) in the past.

Second, from taxes and teachers' pay to crime fighting solutions and environmental standards, local races often push important policy issues to the onto the national agenda.

Third, mayoral races often are where new political techniques emerge that are later used in national campaigns.

Three of the five major mayoral races this year feature incumbents in trouble -- New York (Michael Bloomberg), Los Angeles (James Hahn) and Detroit (Kwame Kilpatrick). In New York, much of Bloomberg's struggle has been a stylistic one -- a billionaire businessman who is having trouble relating perhaps to gritty New Yorkers. The most recent polls shows a former borough president with slim lead over Bloomberg.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Hahn may not even finish in the top two this Tuesday, and if so he will not make the run-off and his term will end this fall. In Detroit, 30-something mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has eight times as much campaign money on hand as his other two major opponents, but he has been dogged by scandals and a seeming failure to deliver on his vision.

A fourth race in San Antonio features a young candidate who may become known as "the Barack Obama of Texas"-- Julian Castro.

Like Obama, Castro has a compelling life story. He and his twin brother were raised by a single mother before winning scholarships to Stanford and Harvard Law School. Castro was the youngest city council member ever elected in San Antonio four years ago and now at 30, he is running against two other opponents to become mayor of the nation's eighth largest city.

So will there be major turnover in the nation's largest city halls this year? Stay tuned. From the possible rise of Latino mayors (New York, Los Angeles, San Antonio) to the possible emergence of a set of young mayoral stars (San Antonio, New York, even Newark), there is a lot to follow.

Court impact

With last year's decisions on gay marriage, the U.S. courts undoubtedly had a major impact on politics. This year, the courts also are likely to have a significant impact on the political arena. From two major Ten Commandments cases to U.S. Supreme Court cases on assisted suicide, medical marijuana and property rights, there is more to rally the political right than the political left. Depending on the outcomes, these cases (especially the Ten Commandments cases) could further inflame the ongoing battles over confirming federal judges.

They could also affect the selection of the next chief justice of the United States. If, through the Ten Commandments cases, the Supreme Court further limits religious displays in public areas, it could create a major new litmus test on the right for would-be chief justices, along with abortion, gay marriage and federalism views.

Put simply, any remaining chance that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has in being named the next chief (especially if current Chief Justice William Rehnquist steps down in June, as some expect) could rest on how she votes on the Ten Commandments cases and how it is perceived by some of the president's strongest backers, conservative evangelicals.

In addition to the Ten Commandments cases, one other legal fight to watch in 2005 for major political implications is the brewing battle over mid-decade redistricting.

For centuries, state legislatures typically have drawn lines for congressional districts and state legislative districts once a decade. The process has almost always been criticized as either partisan, or overly favorable towards incumbents, or both. Nevertheless, those lines would typically stay in place through informal agreement for 10 years until a new census led to a new round of line-drawing.

But in 2003, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay led the Texas GOP in changing the informal rules of the game and and guided the mid-decade redrawing of Congressional district lines.

The result produced more Republican Congress members out of Texas -- and angry Democrats across the land. Now Georgia, Illinois, New York and even California are considering abandoning the centuries old informal agreement of redistricting once-a-decade.

The question is will the courts allow state officials to do this. The first big decision is likely to emerge from Texas this year. If Texas courts (and others) say "keep going," congressional politics may change not only this year, but for decades to come.

The new political players

Since I first wrote early last year that the blogs could become a major political force, they have repeatedly proven that prediction true. But as 2005 gets under way, blogs may not be newest, hottest media force to stir policy and politics.

Indeed, from The New Yorker and Vanity Fair to Vogue and O, arts and culture magazines have been having a growing and diverse political impact over the last year.

They could be poised to join the blogs in shaking up the political establishment in 2005 in at least three significant ways -- inserting new issues into the national political debate, highlighting or reframing the images of key politicos, and rallying new energy to existing policy issues.

For example, since bringing Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh aboard, The New Yorker in particular has been stirring political waters with hard-hitting investigative pieces, turning Abu Ghraib and more recently "the outsourcing" of torture into major national political stories.

And while they have been pooh-poohed as puff pieces at times, "Vanity Fair" and "Esquire" profiles of politicos have been just the image-polishing that most politicians crave in this era of Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama-like political celebrity. Even the Bush twins, while not politicians (at the moment), gained valuable image-burnishing from a "Vogue" cover piece last fall.

Perhaps the arts and culture magazine with the potential to have the biggest and most enduring political and policy impact is a surprise .... "O" magazine.

With an almost cult-like monthly readership of nearly 10 million people, "O" already has helped put valuable additional spotlight on issues like spousal abuse and breast cancer. In the future, O could significantly reframe such key national issues as the Social Security debate, and/or activate its readers to aggressively rally around particular issues just as they do around recommended books.

Individual arts and culture magazines have had individual political impacts in the past. For example, Vanity Fair use to do more political investigative pieces a la The New Yorker, and The Atlantic Monthly has long weighed in on policy and political issues.

But this is the first time in recent memory that the arts and culture magazines collectively have had such a varied and important political impact.

Like the blogs -- whose impact has grown but whose credibility is being increasingly questioned -- arts and culture magazines risk being ignored if their stories are not solid or if they are seen simply as partisan haranguing. Unlike the bipartisan blogosphere, arts and culture magazines currently are more liberal.

Nevertheless, smart politicos know that magazine stories can raise public awareness and move public opinion. So this fall, as battles erupt over Social Security or possibly Supreme Court confirmations, do not read just the blogs. Also pay attention to arts and culture magazines.

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