Friday, April 21, 2006

The perfect issue for gasbags

I awoke today to see this story, about how the Democrats are eager to exploit rising gasoline prices as a campaign '06 issue, and my reaction was:
Dream on.

This issue pops up in the spring and summer of every single election season -- gas prices inevitably spike as car-dependent Americans prepare to hit the road -- and politicians from the "out" party always convince themselves that they have been handed a gift. They love the gas issue because so many Americans love their cars. So they try to pin the blame for high prices on the incumbent party...and nothing happens.

Warm-weather anger never translates into autumn votes; the amnesiacs in the Democratic party don't seem to even recall the recent past.

Consider the spring of 2004, when John Kerry tried to hang the average $2.06 per gallon price around President Bush's neck, by lamenting Bush's refusal to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (a phony charge anyway, because such a move would have slashed prices by only a few pennies, as President Clinton discovered in 2000, when he released 30 million barrels). In 2004, other Democrats joined in by painting Bush as a do-nothing tool of the oil companies. Yet somehow I don't remember this issue playing much of a role in the November results.

No doubt, in the weeks ahead, the Republicans will retaliate by contending that the Democrats are to blame for high gas prices because the "obstructionists" barred oil drilling in the Arctic refuge. But that will be a phony charge as well, because Bush's own Energy Department concluded several years ago that any price drop triggered by new domestic oil would be "negligible." Meanwhile, today, the GOP decided that the best way to handle the gas price hike issue was to resurrect the fact that many Democrats voted to raise the federal gas tax. So they put out a press release. Those Democratic votes 1993 and 1996.

The point is, presidents and political parties can't control the pump price of gas. Voters sense that there is no way to strictly assign partisan blame. Anyone who picks up a newspaper can see that the biggest global factor driving up gas prices is the burgeoning demand for oil in the fast-developing economies of China and India.

And as Democrats seek to exploit this issue at GOP expense, let's see whether they will point any of the blame at the gas-guzzling American consumer. Not likely, since gas-guzzling consumers vote. Checking a news website the other day, I saw two headlines: gas prices are going up...and Detroit is expecting a big sales year for SUVs.

Which reminds me of a story. This comes from John Zogby, the pollster. He told me a few years back, "My son and I just went to a book party for Arianna Huffington. She waxed eloquent about the pitfalls of SUVs, everybody listened -- and when we left, maybe 11 SUVs were parked outside, waiting to pick up guests. Point is, you can't call on Americans to sacrifice during a...campaign. That's a loser."

So is the gas issue itself.