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Gas Bag

The list of societal ills for which the Bush administration is partly or completely to blame is staggeringly long. A partial accounting includes: a failure to plan for Iraq's reconstruction, misleading the public about the costs of the war and the imminence of the weapons threat, the spiraling budget deficit, higher income inequality, inadequate homeland security, lack of progress on the health care crisis, and the fracturing of the national unity that followed the September 11 attacks. And yet, in recent days, John Kerry has devoted less attention to any of these maladies than to one for which George W. Bush is, at most, only tangentially responsible: the price of gasoline, which Kerry has made perhaps his single most prominent campaign issue. "George Bush has no plan, doesn't address it, doesn't seem to care that every American family is paying more to go to work, for the products that they get, to be able to get to school, to be able to do all the things Americans do in the course of a summer," Kerry charged last week in a typical broadside.

There are numerous flaws with Kerry's focus on gas prices. First, gas prices aren't actually that big a problem. Mathematically illiterate local news programs hype the fact that gas prices have topped the $2 mark for the first time ever. But, of course, the nature of inflation is such that, over time, the nominal cost of nearly everything tends to rise. Indeed, the average price of gas in the 1950s--an era many Americans remember as one of abundant, cheap energy--was about $1.80 per gallon in today's money; the U.S. record price for gasoline occurred in 1981, when regular unleaded cost about $2.80 per gallon in 2004 dollars. Kerry inadvertently confirmed the ho-hum nature of the current "gas crisis" when he declared last month, "Right now, there are people all over the country who are literally going through their purses and pockets--looking behind the sofa, under the cushions--to find the pennies and extra money to be able to pay the additional costs of gasoline." It seems not to have dawned on Kerry that, if gas prices (unlike, say, health care) are a problem that can be addressed by finding coins underneath cushions, then perhaps it's not actually a national emergency.

Second, while Kerry's near-obsessive invoking of gas prices seems aimed at conditioning voters to curse Bush's name every time they pull up to the pump, the rise in gasoline prices isn't really Bush's fault. The main cause is rising demand, especially in China and India. It's true that instability in Iraq has contributed somewhat to higher prices. But there would be uncertainty about Iraq's oil even if Bush had carried out the well-planned, multilateral occupation that Kerry says he would have executed.

Third, Kerry's proposed solutions to this "crisis" are either ineffectual or counterproductive. He has sensibly proposed incentives for more efficient cars, but that would do nothing to lower the short-term price hike he bemoans. He has also urged Bush to temporarily stop filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. (Of course, if Bush had done so, Kerry would have decried him for manipulating it in an election year for partisan purposes.) But, since gasoline supply is constrained more by refining capacity than by the amount of crude oil, this would have a negligible effect on prices. Finally, Kerry has demanded that Bush "jawbone" Saudi Arabia into increasing production. But, if Bush has political capital with the Gulf kingdom, wouldn't it be better spent persuading the Saudis to crack down on terrorists, rather than saving American drivers a few pennies?

Worst of all, Kerry is reinforcing America's debilitating belief that extremely cheap gas is both possible and desirable. It's not possible, because the rising price of gasoline is a function of a long-term rise in demand that's likely to continue. And, even if it were possible, it's not desirable, because cheap gas encourages drivers to buy ridiculously inefficient vehicles. One result is that we're more vulnerable to swings in oil prices and we send more of our national income to terrorism-supporting Gulf kingdoms than we would if even a modicum of sensible conservation prevailed.

The truth, as Kerry no doubt understands, is that a sensible energy policy would require Americans to pay more for gasoline. Demanding these sorts of sacrifices is not easy. Republicans flayed President Clinton in 1993 for imposing a piddling 4.3 cents per gallon tax increase. If Kerry truly intends to launch a national energy-independence campaign--and his record suggests a genuine commitment to the issue--then, sooner or later, he'll have to speak some hard truths to an American public that has grown accustomed to rumbling around in gas-guzzling behemoths. If that day comes, the populist flames he's fanning today will come back to burn him.

This article originally ran in the June 7, 2004, issue of the magazine.