Political Pulse May 2006

Looking for Someone to Blame

The public's instinctive reaction to high gas prices is that somebody is up to no good.
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Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster. High gasoline prices are an unnatural disaster. That is why the issue of gas prices has a much sharper political edge.

Do Americans think the federal government can actually do something about gas prices? Absolutely, said nearly 90 percent of respondents in a CBS News poll. And does the Bush administration have a clear plan to do anything? Absolutely not, said 82 percent.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., proposed a $100 rebate for all Americans. That idea got laughed off the agenda and has become this year's symbol of an out-of-touch Congress, just like the Terri Schiavo case was last year.

High gas prices are "an issue that has been building for decades," Scott McClellan, then the White House press secretary, said on May 1. "This is a problem that we didn't get into overnight and that we're not going to get out of overnight."

That argument is not working with the public, though. President Bush's job-approval rating is down to 33 percent in polls taken by CBS News and by the Associated Press/Ipsos. Bush's approval rating on gas prices is 17 percent.

Is that fair? Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said, "What we need to do here, instead of pointing fingers and demagoguing the issue, is to understand economics and appreciate where the real problem is." Which is where? According to Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil's chief executive, "It's all about supply-and-demand fundamentals. And the only thing that can be done is for people to try to use energy efficiently."

According to Kyl, "The single most important component in the retail price of gasoline is the cost of crude oil.... If you're looking for a culprit, there is your culprit. Why have crude oil prices gone up? Because the demand has exceeded the supply." So what's the solution? "We need to increase domestic supply ... right here at home," Frist said. "We need to diversify our energy sources."

Talking about supply and demand gets you an A in economics and an F in politics. Americans do not see the sudden rise in gas prices as some kind of natural disaster, like a hurricane. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said, "Isn't it curious, as you drive around your hometown, that all the prices on all the pumps seem to go up and come down at the same time? Is that the sort of thing government ought to look into? I think so."

The public's instinctive reaction is to think that somebody is up to no good. "Consumers are confused and angry as to why these price increases are occurring now," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. "Their anger is stoked by reports of high salaries and retirement packages being handed out to executives in the oil and gas industry." Somebody is to blame. Democrats seem to get that better than Republicans. Maybe, people think, that's because Republicans get more money from business and because the president and vice president are oilmen.

When the public is asked, "Which party is more likely to see to it that gas prices are low?" Democrats are picked over Republicans by more than 2-to-1 (47 percent to 20 percent in the CBS poll).

Economists talk about supply and demand. Politicians talk about greed and corruption. Guess which topic is likely to work better at the ballot box.

There's mounting evidence that voters may take out their anger on Republicans this fall. In the AP/Ipsos poll, Democrats have a 17-point lead (51 percent to 34 percent) when voters are asked how they intend to vote for Congress. In January, the Gallup Poll showed that Democrats and Republicans were equally enthusiastic about voting this year. Now Democrats have a clear edge. Republicans seem demoralized.

Only 38 percent of voters polled by Gallup this month say that most members of Congress deserve to be re-elected. That's the lowest figure in 12 years. Fifty-nine percent say their own representative deserves to be re-elected. That, too, is the lowest figure in 12 years. What happened 12 years ago? On Election Day 1994, angry voters rose up against the majority party in Congress and "threw the bums out."

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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