It's Gas Prices, Stupid (or Why Dems Are Bashing Bush on Energy)

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Fill it up: Democratic leader Richard Gephardt touts his party's energy plan

For the moment, forget about conservation. And renewable energy. As George W. Bush gets ready to raise the curtain on his vice president's more-oil, more-coal, more-nukes long-term energy plan Thursday, he's left the Democrats a political opening bigger and juicier than any environmental outcry: Gas and electricity prices this summer.

Tuesday afternoon, House Democrats gathered at a filling station conveniently located near Capitol Hill and did their best to jump in. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt unveiled a competing, "balanced" energy program (yes, that's the same word Bush uses to describe his) that "will help families and businesses cut energy costs now."

John Dingell scolded the White House for letting Big Oil get away with price gouging on the way to the pump and called on Bush to follow his own campaign advice and say to OPEC, "open up your spigots." Other Democrats stumped for further short-term measures — repeal "gas tax" to ease price pressures at the pump, and wholesale price caps on electricity to force California's energy market back into a more consumer-friendly balance.


The dance of short-term politics

It's smart and sensible politics. Remember the tax-cut fight in March? Democrats saw that Bush's plan — conceived in sunnier economic times long before it actually hit Congress — had nothing in it to address the current malaise. They hit the ground screaming for $60 billion in immediate stimulus, hoping to paint Bush as an out-of-touch ideologue who, for all his talk, couldn't be bothered to address what was actually going on America that day.

Bush and the Republicans quickly came around, and while it's now apparent that both sides were snowing us — new insta-tax-cut arrival date: October — no real political damage was done, not least because the stock markets have since rebounded and the economy, though still teetering, declined to nosedive on Tom Daschle's cue.

Gasoline prices may not be so cooperative. And it remains to be seen if the White House will react to the political alarm bells. It seems that Bush and Cheney have correctly appraised the situation as market-based and, in the near term, pretty much unavoidable. OPEC isn't the problem this time; the current spike at the pumps, as well as any similar (or worse) summer pain, comes down to U.S. refineries — refinery fires, refinery maintenance, whether refineries can run at full capacity until October — not sympathy (or lack thereof) from Washington. As far as the Bush team is concerned, tinkering with the markets now (which are only responding to those "eight years of neglect" from that Clinton guy) is not only futile, it's un-American. Same goes for capping electricity prices.

But neglect or not, Americans got used to plenty of quick-fix sympathy from Big Bad Bill, whether it was tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, dispatching Bill Richardson to roam the desert to lean on OPEC or just a lot of lip-biting over prices at the pump.

There won't be any investigation of Big Oil — Cheney told the AP Monday that "there's no reason to believe there's price gouging" — and there won't be any federal imposition of price caps in California or anywhere else. But other possibilities, like a temporary repeal of that 18.4 percent gas tax or even a temporary suspension of some highway tolls, got batted around at GOP lawmakers' weekly lunch with Cheney on Tuesday, and with vulnerable GOPers like Susan Collins of Maine fielding a lot of angry calls from the folks at home, we may see Bush and Cheney play a little short-term politics too.

With the pre-conditions already in place and market prices legendarily hard to budge with any consistency, any summer fixes either side can come up with will likely be cosmetic. But Republicans drive SUVs too, and if Bush is expecting them to take all their summer driving pain on the memory of Bill Clinton and his "eight years of neglect" — all while steadfastly keeping their eyes on the "long-term picture" — he may not be around long enough to see all those new refineries get built.

OK. Back to the big picture

As for the Democrats' long-term plan, it sounds like it has more in common with Bush's than one might expect, starting with increasing oil production in areas that have already been roped off to exploration and building more pipelines to move natural gas from Alaska to the rest of the country. (This overlap may have something to do with the fact that labor unions are quickly cozying up to the Bush Administration's more-everything energy policy as a potential job gusher.)

Of course, the Democratic plan will also "make America a world leader in energy efficiency, through our bottomless capacity in innovation and new technology to improve people's lives," Gephardt said, mostly through a series of tax incentives to help consumers build energy efficient homes and buy hybrid gas-and-electric automobiles. "We will create traditional and renewable sources of energy without sacrificing the environment and our children's future."

That's because the plan is "balanced." That word again. So guess what? Get ready for a summer-long haggle in both houses of Congress over this new oil-well or that, over drilling in the ANWR, over every last trade-off between supply, demand and the environment, and eventually we'll have an energy policy that may just be "balanced" indeed.

Someday, gas prices may even go back down.