All Together Now: It's the Gas Price, Stupid

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Bashing Big Oil may look like a double play to the Gore campaign, but a vice president whose campaign is based on claiming credit for the nation's economic prosperity may take most of the heat for rising oil prices. After all, as Gore and President Clinton proved in 1992, the electorate, fairly or unfairly, blames the incumbent for its economic woes, and gas prices are the one dark cloud on an otherwise still sunny economic horizon. The Gore campaign is looking to inoculate itself against any electoral backlash over gas prices by blaming them principally on corporate gouging, while at the same time furiously spinning the Bush-Big Oil connection to redirect the heat. Bush, for his part, is chiding Gore for environmental objections to oil exploration in an Alaskan nature reserve, imposing clean air standards that push up prices and failing to pressure OPEC into pumping up production to lower the crude price.

OPEC did, indeed, vote another production increase Wednesday, but the 3 percent increment is unlikely to make much difference to the price. The cartel has resurrected itself after being left for dead by consumer nations as the price slumped to record lows during the boom years of the '90s, and is once again controlling the supply in order to maintain prices at around $25 a barrel, even though they reached $32 earlier this week. Washington broadly agrees with that price range, as a means of ensuring the long-term economic and political stability of the oil-producing nations. The Bush campaign will turn its fire on OPEC, and attack the Clinton administration for failing to lean hard enough on states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which the U.S. saved from Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War.

The Gore campaign is focused on the oil industry's burgeoning profits, which have coincided with the soaring pump prices, and has called for oil executives to be dragged before congressional hearings to explain themselves. But America isn't at war, and though profiteering may leave a bad taste, it isn't a crime. More difficult for Gore, perhaps, is the fact that his campaign has only this week begun to thump the anti-Big Oil tub, after previously simply vowing to investigate ways of relieving rising oil prices. With the gas price shaping up as the sole bread-and-butter issue to infuriate voters in an uninspired presidential race, the struggle between the two campaigns to claim the issue as their own may yet prove to be decisive in shaping the final outcome.