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Prices will fuel debate

No matter the GOP nominee, soaring gas costs will remain a major issue

Published: Thursday, March 22, 2012 5:00 a.m. CST

(MCT) — Mitt Romney has won the Illinois primary, and with it a sizable advantage in the Republican presidential race. If he can close the deal — or even if Rick Santorum somehow finds a way to come back — one thing seems certain.

The price of gas will loom large in the fall campaign, with the Republicans taking full advantage and the Democrats trying to duck the blame.

Whether it’s fair to blame a president for the price of gas can be debated. What’s not being debated is what a driver thinks when it costs so much to fill up the soccer van. Here’s what she thinks:

This hurts.

And the art of presidential politics is taking what hurts — like the rising price of gas — and directing it to your opponents.

American presidents get nervous when voters grumble about the price of gas, the way Roman emperors got nervous when the people began howling over the price of bread. The Roman mob in the street didn’t concern itself with Egyptian politics. The Romans wanted cheap bread, and it was up to the emperor to get it for them.

Back in 2006, when gas prices were at a what-now-seems-reasonable $3 a gallon, the media couldn’t contain their contempt for President George W. Bush’s inability to do better for the people.

“What do you say to people who are losing patience with gas prices at $3 a gallon?” a reporter asked Bush. “And how much of a political price do you think you’re paying for that right now?”

Now Barack Obama is our president. And American journalism is still in love with him.

Even so, as we approach the summer driving season, a gallon of regular gasoline averages $3.87 nationwide, and it’s more than $4 in the Chicago area. Petroleum analysts say gas could easily reach a record $5 per gallon in a few months.

Even journalists in love might feel compelled to tell the story of American anguish at the gas pump, as summer anxieties help define the debate through the political conventions and the fall campaign.

Part of the problem is increased demand for oil in Latin America. Part of it is the lack of drilling and refinery capability in the U.S. Also, there is the threat of war breaking out in the Middle East over Israeli fears about the nuclear capability of oil-rich Iran.

The president has warned critics against war talk on the international front. And he’s become quite defensive when asked about his critics taking advantage of him over the price of gas.

“Ed,” Obama said at a news conference the other day, exasperated with Fox News reporter Ed Henry, “just from a political perspective, do you think the president of the United States going into re-election wants gas prices to go higher? Is there anybody here who thinks that makes a lot of sense?”

Of course not.

Some of the Republican rhetoric on gas prices has been so ridiculous and over-the-top that it’s been relatively easy for Obama’s mouthpieces to dismiss it as nonsensical baby talk or worse.

For example, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s recent promise (or was that more of a desperate plea?) that he’d give us $2.50 gas falls into the ridiculous, nonsensical, baby-talk category.

“Snake oil,” mocked Obama’s strategist David Axelrod.

The earth will crack open and swallow me for saying this, but Axelrod is 100 percent correct. It is snake oil.

But then, before the 2008 presidential campaign, a young U.S. senator from Illinois routinely took political advantage of gas prices. Does anyone have any idea who that dashing young senator from Chicago might have been?

And his comments — whether snake oil or environmentally correct analysis or Chicago-style rough-and-tumble — will surely be played again and again in GOP campaign spots this fall.

With gas prices increasing, Obama recently bowed to his allies in the radical environmental movement and stopped construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline that would have easily shipped oil from Canada and created tens of thousands of American jobs.

Another avenue of GOP attack will be using U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu as the poster boy of the fall campaign.

The energy secretary doesn’t own a car. Not even a car subsidized by taxpayers, like a Chevy Volt. Big mistake. What will he drive in the Obama campaign commercial? A futuristic, science-fiction mode of transport like, say, a bicycle?

In a Sept. 2008 Wall Street Journal interview, before he was energy secretary, Chu famously said that the goal was to “boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe” so that Americans would wean themselves off fossil fuels and toward alternative energy.

The way to wean Americans from using gasoline is to help make it so expensive that we can’t afford it. That might make sense to environmentalists who tell the president what to do about pipelines and the like, but not to those whose job it is to get the president re-elected.

So Chu was trotted out recently at another hearing and was asked about that embarrassing 2008 statement.

“I no longer share that view,” he said quietly.

“... Of course we don’t want the price of gasoline to go up, we want it to go down,” Chu said.

Sure you do, Mr. Secretary.

The election is eight months away.

If I were you, I’d get a car.

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