PUMPED UP

By RON KLAIN From Nytimes.com/campaignstops Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.) The Republican machinations of the last two week...

By RON KLAIN From Nytimes.com/campaignstops Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.)

The Republican machinations of the last two weeks in the presidential campaign have a certain deja vu quality to them: Charlie Black is again warning us of a possible terror attack, commentators are stoking up fears among gun owners and critics are trying to make Barack Obama look like he’s soft on crime and elitist. Serving up this stew of scares, social issues and slander delivered the White House to the GOP in 2000 and 2004: Will it work again?

I don’t think so. While the pundits and analysts spin elaborate campaign scenarios and analyses, this year you can cut through all that stuff and boil the campaign down to a single sentence: If gas is still more than $4 a gallon on Election Day, there is no way a Republican will continue to control the White House. All the lapel-pin, Internet-rumor, orange-alert, character-smear, gays-n’-guns, ground-game efforts by the GOP cannot possibly overcome the stark reality of $4 a gallon for gas.

I know it seems simplistic, but the reality of high gas prices touches many nerves – some obvious, others less so – that yield the irresistible outcome I’m suggesting.

First, there are the raw economic and financial consequences for most Americans. There is a long tradition in democracies of voters being driven by price increases in key commodities: The French Revolution was fueled by the soaring price of bread, and our colonial forefathers were riled by a tax on tea.

For 21st century Americans, nothing is more vital than gasoline. Even more than any particular food item, gasoline is the essential commodity that takes Americans to work, brings their goods to market and powers their recreation.

The hit on Americans’ pocketbooks is huge, and when one adds the many indirect effects (everything from higher prices on goods transported by truck, to job losses in fuel-driven industries, to plummeting resale values on used SUV’s), high gas prices hit more people, more deeply, than almost any other economic phenomenon short of a depression. Pinched and angry voters are change voters, plain and simple.

Second, there is the way in which $4-a-gallon gas functions as a damning prism for evaluating the failure of Republican policies over the last eight years. Wasn’t the war in Iraq supposed to bring stability to the Middle East and curry favor with oil-producing nations, thereby maintaining a supply of inexpensive oil? Apparently not.

What about our energy policy? Shouldn’t we be less dependent on imported oil and farther along the path to fuel efficiency and renewable and alternative energy? Apparently not.

What about urban or transportation policies to lessen our reliance on cars? Apparently not.

In presidential campaigns, showing the consequences of policy failures is often hard to do, but not this time; a look at the posted-price signs at gas stations across the country makes that failure plain.

Third, the regressive impact of high gas prices exacerbates America’s sense of a growing social and economic divide between the few who are prospering and the many who are not. The $2,000 to $3,000 a year that the gas price surge costs families (directly and indirectly) hits 90 percent of American families very hard – and 10 percent barely at all. If you drive to work, you are feeling the pain; if you are driven to work, you’re probably not. And that’s a divide that puts most Americans firmly in the Democratic camp.

Finally, there are the ill-considered and ultimately counterproductive policy pronouncements that $4-a-gallon gas will drive the McCain campaign to make. In September 2000, sensing mounting voter anger over rising gas prices, Al Gore announced his support for releasing supply from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in an attempt to “do something” about gas prices.

The move backfired politically and failed to assuage voter unhappiness over gasoline prices that had “soared” 30 cents a gallon over the previous year to a “painful” national average of $1.60.

Today’s prices have already led John McCain to make a horrible blunder: proposing to reverse a decades-old policy banning offshore oil drilling. This move has stripped away any pro-environment veneer for McCain, forced Arnold Schwarzenegger, the most popular Republican governor in America, to break ranks with him; and put Florida back in play for the Obama campaign. What additional, and possibly even worse, ideas are still to come is anyone’s guess.

So the McCain campaign and its allies will try – as they have the last two weeks – almost anything to get the topic away from this core reality that most Americans face every day, and that so comprehensively reflects the failure of President Bush’s domestic, economic and foreign policies. But unless something changes, voter outrage at the pump will yield voter action at the polls in November.

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July 6, 2008

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