Published February 20, 2013
"It's a metaphor for an economy that keeps biting people despite overall good numbers."
-- Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., then chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, talking to the New York Times in April 2006 about how Democrats could exploit voter anger over high gasoline prices, then surpassing an average of $2.50 per gallon.
Gas prices haven’t risen this quickly since the spring of 2005 – jumping 45 cents in the past 31 days.
The reasons now are as complicated as they were eight years ago. International unrest, limited refinery capacity, investors betting on economic recovery and OPEC antics are all still part of the formula for explaining why people are suddenly digging deeper to fill up.
The political consequences, too, may be very similar.
In 2005, voters were unhappy that the invasion of Iraq, called a war for oil by critics, had actually helped produce higher, not lower gas prices. Supply disruptions, Arab upset over the war and other consequences had helped drive up the price at the pump for American consumers.
President George W. Bush recognized the problem and made lower gas prices a major part of his 2006 State of the Union address, calling for increased domestic energy production to wean the nation from foreign oil (anyone remember “switchgrass”?)
Democrats were flaying Republicans for the high prices, saying that the two oilmen at the top of the federal government were helping their fat cat friends at Exxon at the expense of the little man.
Republicans complained that the high prices were evidence of positive things. Not only was it proof that the U.S. was not plundering Iraq’s oil but also that the higher prices reflected growing confidence about the economy.
The Republican pleas, though, were to no avail as news story after news story hammered the party and the president for the high prices. When prices climbed even higher in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s knockout blow to Gulf Coast refineries, Democrats were poised for the political kill shot.
There were lots of reasons for the GOP wipeout of 2006. Troubles in Iraq were the biggest part, and Mark Foley’s indiscretions were the coup de grace, but gas prices were a huge factor. Oil. Iraq. Halliburton. Katrina.
Today, gas prices are racing toward the $4 mark months before the usual warm-weather spike in prices and Democrats should be worried about history repeating itself.
The Obama Democrats are saying the same things as Republicans did eight years ago, but it doesn’t do much for strapped middle-income families to explain that higher gas prices are evidence of economic recovery.
For a family of average income, paying $10 more per tank of gas compared to one month ago hurts a lot. Add in the fact that their income dropped by $40 a week under the president’s year-end tax deal and you start to see some real suffering.
There’s the larger concern about the dangers to the fragile recovery. The loss of so much disposable will do a lot to make families feel poorer, which makes them spend less, borrow less and do less to stimulate growth.
President Obama successfully battled Republicans on this topic in 2008, making audacious claims about his support for drilling and oil production. He also tapped the government’s oil reserves to drive down prices when things were getting too wooly at the pump. Voters may have been skeptical about Obama and energy, but he had lots of answers.
The key for the president, though, was mostly ignoring one of the issues that dearest to him and his political base before and since: the belief in man-made global warming. With gas prices high and voters crabby, Obama talked precious little about what he calls “climate change.”
Since re-election, though, Obama has been back to the subject with a vengeance. His two big speeches so far have highlighted the issue and his economic plan centers on “green jobs.” Obama wasn’t going to talk about subsidized jobs in eco-friendly industries while voters were thinking about Solyndra and the failed effort to impose fees on businesses for carbon emissions.
The president may not care anymore, hoping to transform the public perception of these issues or at least make the effort. But for Democratic lawmakers facing a still crabby electorate, the president’s eco-boost amid punishing gas prices should be very alarming.
Democrats are currently focused on the economic damage they say will be done by automatic decreases to automatic increases in federal spending this year. But these fiscal fights pale in comparison to the economic realities of high energy prices for American voters.
Republicans will know just how to exploit the subject heading into Midterm elections. The Democrats showed them how it’s done.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.