The Republicans are synthesizing a higher-octane blend in their bid to fuel Americans’ anxiety about higher gas prices.
The Republican National Committee sent out talking points instructing party faithful to take up the issue. House Speaker John Boehner urged his caucus to do the same. And, on Wednesday, the House energy committee obliged: The Republican majority called in a bunch of oilmen for a hearing dedicated largely to blaming President Obama for gas prices.
“The president got his wish,” Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., announced. “He asked for $4 gasoline, he said he wanted it, he implemented policies to get us there, and now that the price is there and people across the country are furious with the prices, the president is trying to blame somebody else.”
But why blame Obama for $4 gas if you can tar him with $10 gas? Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va. asked a Big Oil man on the panel, Charles Drevna of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, what the price of a gallon would be if all domestic production ceased. “Ten dollars, like they pay in Europe?”
“That’s difficult to answer,” Drevna replied.
The lawmaker wasn’t satisfied. “This administration would like to wean us off our fossil fuels,” he announced, repeating the question.
“The cost? I can’t,” Big Oil demurred.
“Would we be paying $10 a gallon?” the congressman demanded.
“If not more,” the oilman finally answered.
In fact, domestic oil output has sharply increased under President Obama to the highest level in nearly a decade and is expected to continue expanding. Even if that stopped, it’s not obvious that European price levels (which are inflated by taxes) would be the automatic result.
But reason has nothing to do with it. As the stock market advances and the labor market improves, Republicans are losing their best campaign themes. That makes the recent spike in gasoline prices — in part a byproduct of higher economic growth — a potentially crucial issue for the opposition. The facts aren’t on their side (policymakers have little sway over oil prices; and one policy area that is spurring prices, the prospect of attacking Iran, has been pushed by Republican candidates) but political reality is: The incumbent will be credited or blamed for whatever happens on his watch, good or bad.
At his Super Tuesday speech after his victory in the Georgia primary this week, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich devoted much of his speech to attacking Obama for the higher prices, even misquoting a line from the president’s news conference earlier Tuesday to make it sound as if Obama only cared about gas prices because of his re-election. Gingrich also repeated his implausible pledge that he will get gas prices down to $2.50 a gallon.
Other Republicans, meanwhile, continue to allege that Obama has been attempting to drive gasoline prices upward. “It’s my view that the administration’s policies are actually designed to bring about higher gas prices,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a floor speech Wednesday morning.
On the other side of the Capitol complex, another Kentuckian, Rep. Ed Whitfield, kicked off the hearing on gas prices with a similar theme: “When President Obama took office, the average gasoline price was around $1.85 a gallon, and today it’s over $3.60 per gallon. I do not intend today to place all of the blame on the president, but I’m gonna give him some of it.” Actually, Whitfield gave Obama so much blame that he got lost in his notes. “I’m having some difficulty reading my own writing,” he confessed.
Republicans weren’t quite so out of sorts when gas prices were above $4 a gallon in the summer of 2008, during George W. Bush’s tenure. Democrats tried to remind them Wednesday of their selective outrage. “Let’s quit BS-ing the American people that there’s some policy that any president, Democrat or Republican, or any Congress can do to affect the price of a world commodity,” Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Doyle suggested.
Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York, preferred to label the Republican argument “poppycock.”
But Republicans correctly judged that they had a political winner. “It just looks to me,” Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., declared, “like this administration has an all-of-the-above policy to raise the cost of energy.”
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said that for every penny increase in gas, “that’s $1.4 million a day” in higher costs.
“Billion,” corrected Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.
“Billion? Is it billion or million?” Barton inquired.
“Billion,” Upton assured him.
Million, billion, whatever. In this fight, the facts don’t matter.
Dana Milbank’s email address is danamilbank@ washpost.com.