Saturday, February 25, 2012

Note to GOP on gas prices: Don’t go there

With spring right around the corner, prices for gasoline have begun their annual northward migration as refineries make changes in gasoline grades to accommodate warmer temperatures, and other variables, in the United States.

It’s a regular thing and has been for years, but the Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail would have you believe that President Obama is the boogeyman responsible for pain at the pump.

To that end, the GOP is employing a contortionist rhetorical fiction, ramping up a blame-game strategy to lay the price increase at the feet of the Obama administration. Be prepared to know better. There’s not nearly as much there there as the Republicans think.

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For all but the most ardent ideologue, the facts have long been clear: American presidents have little or no control over the price of gasoline; this fact arises from the status of crude oil, gasoline’s parent component, as a global commodity, most of which isn’t produced in the United States.

This is lost on some of the Republican candidates seeking President Obama’s job next year. With the economy beginning to rebound and the party itself grappling with its own identity, they’re doubling down on the hope of crippling Obama’s chances for re-election by shackling him to the increase in gas prices.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the King of Ideas, jumped in the game on Thursday, making a typically windy, high-handed promise to bring back the good old days. “Americans have every right to demand $2.50 gas — we are an oil-rich country,” Gingrich told Newsmax. “My plan will have the price of gasoline at $2.50 a gallon so that Americans aren’t penalized every time they go to the pump.”

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum came out on the issue earlier in the month at a campaign stop in Colorado, suggesting that Obama is intentionally pushing up prices as a way of reducing carbon emissions by getting people to drive less, a theory too utterly counter-intuitive for words. Or serious debate.

At a closed-door meeting, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) recently called on Republicans to do what Republicans do very well: get angry, this time over gas prices. “This debate is a debate we want to have,” Boehner told his conference earlier this month, according to a Republican aide communicating Boehner’s remarks to The New York Times. “It was reported this week that we’ll soon see $4-a-gallon gas prices. Maybe higher. Certainly, this summer will see the highest gas prices in years. Your constituents saw those reports, and they’ll be talking about it.” The implicit wishfulness of some of Boehner’s comments speaks sadly for itself.

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Some in the media have endorsed this crude-oil schadenfreude as something like sagacity, or even wisdom. Chrysta Freeland of Reuters was among them, speaking on MSNBC’s “Hardball” on Monday.

“Tactically, this is a smart issue for the Republicans to be focusing on,” she said. “[T]he culture wars have gone so far to the right in the Republican Party that in the general election … that kind of focus could really kill them. They’re gonna have to try and find a way to return to the economic debate, but with economic numbers looking a little better, it’s hard to find something to peg that on. So the oil price really could be the issue.”

This argument, sophistry at its best, anticipates the Republicans’ next collective j’accuse of the Obama administration, but it fails (as the Republicans themselves will fail) at finding a direct, causal connection between the Obama White House and the price of oil on the global market.

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On Tuesday, Santorum accused the president of hamstringing the nation’s energy independence, at a campaign stop in Phoenix, Ariz: Obama, Santorum said, “has done everything he can to the regulatory process to shut it off -- offshore; deep water. ... Not granting permits. Not building the Keystone Pipeline.”

There’s that key phrase. You knew it was coming: “Keystone Pipeline.” Count on the Republicans trotting out mention of the Gulf Coast and Steele City XL expansions of the Keystone Pipeline, an environmental disaster-in-waiting Obama has blocked until 2013, pending more environment review.

You watch. Other Republicans will weigh in saying that Obama “laid the groundwork” for the current gas-price rise by not approving the Keystone extensions, when those projects wouldn’t have pumped an additional drop of crude into the United States for another three years.

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Accusing the Obama administration of having this kind of influence over U.S. gas prices is a fatuous argument. That fact, fairly obvious right now, may never be more obvious than when — or hopefully, IF — Israel decides to take military action against Iran for the regime’s long-suspected nuclear weapons program.

If such a strike ever goes down, the day after it happens, oil futures will go through the roof, the price at the pump will go up dramatically overnight, and the American people will discover the hard way that any conservative linkage of the Obama White House to influencing oil prices is a fictional one.

It’s an even thinner reed for the GOP, for reasons that rub up against something Republicans can’t stand. Oil prices are unpredictable, responding as they do to threats, real and perceived, against the stability of oil’s source nations, and to the same kind of threats to the values of, and institutions inside, the United States.

If things do finally stabilize in Greece (stabilization in Greece being a very relative thing), or the brutal Assad regime is finally put down, or the Israelis fully subscribe to a more aggressive timetable of hobbling sanctions against Iran, or those sanctions and earlier measures finally make their presence felt inside Iran, we’re just as likely to see prices holding steady as the GOP might have expected (or hoped) those prices would climb out of sight.

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Trying to ride gas prices into the White House is a mug’s game that’s way too dependent on forces the Republicans can’t spin or control. Ironically, one of those forces is the Obama administration itself. The conservative plan to go after the Obama White House has to confront an inconvenient fact: their policy prescription is one Obama’s already using.

Obama made that clear without meaning to on Wednesday night, before an audience in Coral Gables, Fla. The president lampooned the Republican energy strategy. “They’ve already dusted off their three-point plan for $2 gas. … Step 1 is to drill and Step 2 is to drill, and then Step 3 is to keep drilling ...

“The American people aren’t stupid. They know that’s not a plan — especially since we’re already drilling. That’s a bumpersticker.”

There’s another phrase — “We’re already drilling” — whose underlying reality is a problem for the Republicans. “They really can’t go after the president on domestic production of oil and gas,” said Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, on Tuesday. “He’s actually done quite a lot, in fact, I would suspect there are a lot of environmentalists who are worrying that we’re doing too much drilling and fracking,” Bernstein said to Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC.

The next day, National Public Radio reported what environmentalists already know: “[T]he number of drilling rigs in U.S. oil fields has quadrupled under Obama, and domestic oil production hit an 8-year high in 2011. For the first time in 60 years, the U.S. is now a net fuel exporter.” The last time that happened was 1949, during the Truman administration.

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Of course if Republicans are serious about accurately laying blame for the price of oil, they could just go back to the administration of George W. Bush.

An underlying and furiously denied rationale for the Iraq war was that some or much of the financial cost of prosecuting that war could be offset with Iraqi oil reserves, and the expected oil exports to the United States and elsewhere resulting from the flood of new export contracts under a new and (presumably) democratically-elected Iraqi government.

We all know how that turned out. At a cost of more than $900 billion, that war ended late last year, but any increase in oil exports from Iraq never materialized. Iraqi oil exports to the United States peaked at just under 300 million barrels a year in 2001, according to the Energy Information Administration. They’ve been well south of that figure ever since. Iraq exported 403,000 barrels a day to the United States in 2011 — annualized, that’s 147 million barrels a year, less than half of the export levels of 2001, and every year in the decade of war that intervened.

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We’ll never know if oil exports from Iraq would have continued without the war, but there’s no reason to think otherwise. Business is business. With known reserves of 110 billion barrels and only a fraction of its oil fields fully developed, Iraq was the petroleum industry’s opportunity of five lifetimes — while left to its own devices.

But with a provably ruthless and despotic government in place, Iraq and its potential instability provided the Bush White House with the perfect, convenient rationale for invasion.

There’s a cause-and-effect timeline that’s striking in its conclusions: On Jan. 23, 2001, three days after Bush’s inauguration, the average price for gas nationwide, including all grades and taxes, was $1.51 a gallon.

On March 24, 2003, days after the invasion of Iraq, the average nationwide price for gas, all grades, was about $1.76 a gallon, according to the Lundberg Survey of 8,000 stores and gas stations.

On July 17, 2008, under President Bush’s wartime watch, the average price for gas nationwide hit $4.11 a gallon, an all-time high, according to AAA.

On Nov. 10, 2008, days after Barack Obama was elected president, the average price for gas nationwide was $2.28 a gallon.

On Jan. 20, 2009, the day of President Obama’s inauguration, the average price for gas nationwide, all grades, was down to about $1.90 a gallon.

As bad as the current price for a gallon of gas is — the average was $3.65 as of Feb. 20 — it’s still south of the all-time average high, recorded under the Bush administration in July 2008.

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The underlying point? Just as President Bush escapes Republican blame for the escalating price of oil during his years in the White House — despite waging an elective war that had a lot to do with the price of that oil — President Obama and his policies can’t be held responsible for the current rise in prices.

If the current presidency is blamed for today’s pain at the pump, a balanced read of available antecedent information tells us that today’s pain has its origins in the actions of the previous administration.

With an abundance of other issues facing the American people, the Republican candidates seeking the White House would do well to leave gas prices alone, or at least talk about those prices in the wider context of the American economy — an economy beginning to show signs of improvement under Obama.

Gas prices alone aren’t the bludgeon the Republicans think it is. As an issue, the price of gas isn’t controllable; as a political weapon, it’s the worst kind of ammunition there is: just like its underlying product, highly combustible.

Image credits: Sign of the times: via Gingrich: via The Huffington Post. Keystone Pipeline: via KDLT News. U.S. oil drilling chart: The Wall Street Journal via Bush: White House (public domain). Gas retail chart 2006-2012: via dirt and

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