Dems: If You Run on Gas Prices, You Run on Empty

Dems: If You Run on Gas Prices, You Run on Empty
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Dems: If You Run on Gas Prices, You Run on Empty
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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Ever since gas prices hit a four-year high this past Memorial Day, Democrats have been trying to place the blame on President Trump. The Democratic National Committee is reminding folks that Trump used to say the president has “tremendous power over” gas prices. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is talking about how Trump should leverage his close relationship with the Saudis and Russians to open their spigots. This past Sunday, Schumer urged the EPA to shelve its plans for weakening Obama-era automobile fuel efficiency standards, so motorists won’t have to burn a hole in their wallets filling up gas-guzzlers.

Memo to Democrats: run on gas prices, and you’re running on empty.

The strategy may make sense on paper, as many voters may care more about getting pinched at the pump than scandal dramas and foreign policy kabuki. But time and time again, when politicians try to make political hay out of gas prices, they fail.

In 2004, when the price of gas exceeded $2 per gallon for the first time in history, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry accused President George W. Bush of failing to fight “for the American worker, the American family at the fuel pump.” Bush won. In 2012, the year of the highest annual average gas price in history, Republicans routinely slammed President Obama; in fact, that was when Trump made his claim about how presidential power can control gas prices. Obama won. By 2016, gas prices dropped, and Obama tried to take credit in hopes of boosting Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, giving himself a cheeky “Thanks, Obama!” upon a gallon of gas returning to $2. Trump won.

Why don’t voters care that much about gas prices? One voter in 2004 summed it up succinctly to the Associated Press: “It’s a small issue. There’s a whole bigger picture to look at.” To the extent people vote their pocketbook, they are going to vote their whole pocketbook, whereas gas prices are only one household budget item.

Beyond the issue’s limited potency, Democrats also have to be worried about sending mixed messages about their environmental principles. If low gas prices were really a top Democratic priority, then there wouldn’t be a party push to put a price on carbon emissions, which would jack up the cost of fossil fuels. And some Democrats (though to be fair, not Schumer) are open to a gas tax increase so Congress can shore up the Highway Trust Fund.

Conservatives have been quick to call Schumer a hypocrite. David Harsanyi of The Federalist recently wrote, “If higher energy costs hurt Americans -- and thank you, senator, for conceding this point -- why have liberals favored increasing gas taxes, inhibiting exploration for fossil fuels … and capping imports?”

There’s an answer to that question. Yes, most Democrats want fossil fuels to be expensive in order to cut down their use and curb global warming. But they also want to drive down the price of renewable energy and keep overall energy costs affordable for the average household. So when Democrats narrowly complain about high gas prices, they aren’t fully telling their own story, which leaves them vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy.

Democrats are also forgetting the lesson that Obama taught them in the 2008 primary: straight talk on high gas prices beats cheap pandering.

The cost of a gallon had continued to rise during Bush’s second term, and both Clinton, then Obama’s Democratic nemesis, and presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain were proposing a “gas tax holiday” to give Americans short-term relief.

In the run-up to the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, when Clinton staked hopes of a late comeback, Obama dared to dismiss the gas tax holiday idea as political snake oil. He ran a table-turning ad, showing remarkable candor on the stump: “We could suspend the gas tax for six months, but that’s not going to bring down gas prices long-term. It’s going to save about $25, $30. Or half a tank of gas. That’s typical of how Washington works. … Let’s find some short-term, quick fix that we can say we did something, even though we’re not really doing anything.”

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said of Obama’s stance right before the primaries, “If that’s your best outreach to working-class voters, stay home tomorrow because it’s going to get ugly in North Carolina and Indiana.” It didn’t; Obama won the former and lost the latter by less than a point, which was enough to effectively lock up the nomination.

Gas prices fluctuate. Who knows where they will be on Election Day. It doesn’t make sense to base a party’s electoral strategy on something they can’t control. (Ask Mitt Romney about the wisdom of relying on monthly employment numbers.) But to the extent Democrats want to talk about energy costs, they should take the opportunity to make the case for a clean energy strategy that frees consumers from being subject to the whims of the foreign cartels, while also saving us from the dangers of climate change. Such a message may not offer as much populist punch as scapegoating the president for gas prices. But it would help Democrats remind voters that their party is grounded on principles that run deeper than raw antipathy of Donald Trump.

Bill Scher is a contributing editor to Politico Magazine, co-host of the show “The DMZ,” and host of the podcast “New Books in Politics.” He can be reached at or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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