John McCain has a brilliant, original idea: Let’s encourage Americans to drive more by lifting the gas tax for a summer “holiday.”

Presumably it’s the same principle as the “surge” in Iraq: so many soldiers are getting killed, let’s send even more!

Here are some guaranteed effects from McCain’s brainstorm. It would:

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  • Deepen the federal deficit, thereby weakening the dollar.
  • Increase gasoline consumption, in one stroke worsening highway gridlock, compounding U.S. oil dependence, and speeding up global warming.
  • Transfer what used to be tax revenue — potentially usable for public benefit — to the oil companies and the Saudis by pushing up oil demand.

Terrific, eh? McCain could drive to a gas station, perhaps in a jumpsuit with a padded crotch, stand surrounded by Uzi-toting Blackwater thugs while a parade of Hummers top off their tanks, and proclaim Surge II a success.

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Compared to the ongoing catastrophe that we Americans humorously call “energy policy,” none of the effects of McCain’s kooky idea are likely to tip us over the brink into apocalypse. So hey, why not? In the short term, gasoline demand will rise by no more than 100,000 barrels a day, or 1 percent. The Bush deficit, and the dollar’s fall: ditto.

The marvelous thing about McCain’s proposal is that it represents a triple-distilled essence of the chronic, inveterate stupidity of our approach to the whole petroleum problem. McCain’s scheme pushes every policy lever in the wrong direction, even farther than it already is.

We need gasoline to be expensive — not cheap — so households will use less. The poor and middle class don’t need cheaper gas, they need more money. (It would be more logical to distribute the gas tax revenue per household; the $10 billion McCain says he wants to give drivers would amount to $87 per household if distributed pro rata instead.) And Detroit, what’s left of it, needs price signals that reflect climate and geopolitical reality, not prices stuck in fantasyland.

The psychological effect of suspending the gas tax and further sanctifying Americans’ addiction to artificially cheap fossil fuels will more than offset any good that might come from McCain’s vaunted carbon cap-and-trade bill (co-sponsored by McCain’s fellow fan of Surge I, war Democrat Joe Lieberman).

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But the man is perhaps more consistent than he seems. Both the tax holiday and the McCain-Lieberman cap-and-trade bill seek to maintain a collective illusion: that we can continue indefinitely to burn cheap oil while the costs stay hidden in a hundred different places, from budget deficits to climate damage — anywhere except where they might send a useful signal to that most sensitive portion of our anatomy: the wallet.

Of late, presidential campaign coverage has careened from Clinton’s Bosnia fable to Obama’s Bittergate. But McCain’s pandering to his fellow citizens’ gasoline dependence is the insult with consequences.