Dana Milbank
Opinion writer March 7, 2012

The Republicans are synthesizing a higher-octane blend in their bid to fuel Americans’ anxiety about rising gas prices.

The Republican National Committee sent out talking points instructing party faithful to take up the issue. House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) urged his caucus to do the same. And, on Wednesday, the House energy committee obliged: The Republican majority called in a bunch of oilmen for a hearing dedicated largely to blaming President Obama for high gas prices.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

“The president got his wish,” announced Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.). “He asked for $4 gasoline, he said he wanted it, he implemented policies to get us there, and now that the price is there and people across the country are furious with the prices, the president is trying to blame somebody else.”

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But why blame Obama for $4 gas if you can tar him with $10 gas? Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) asked a Big Oil man on the panel, Charles Drevna of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, what the price of a gallon would be if all domestic production ceased. “Ten dollars, like they pay in Europe?”

“That’s difficult to answer,” Drevna replied.

The lawmaker wasn’t satisfied. “This administration would like to wean us off our fossil fuels,” he announced, repeating the question.

“The cost? I can’t,” Big Oil demurred.

“Would we be paying $10 a gallon?” the congressman demanded.

“If not more,” the oilman finally answered.

In fact, domestic oil output has sharply increased under Obama to the highest level in nearly a decade and is expected to continue expanding. Even if that stopped, it’s not obvious that European price levels (which are inflated by taxes) would be an automatic result.

But reason has nothing to do with it. As the stock market advances and the labor market improves, Republicans are losing their best campaign themes. That makes the recent spike in gas prices — in part a byproduct of higher economic growth — a potentially crucial issue for the opposition. The facts aren’t on their side (policymakers have little sway over oil prices; and one policy area that is spurring prices, the prospect of attacking Iran, has been pushed by Republican presidential candidates), but political reality is: The incumbent will be credited or blamed for whatever happens on his watch.

At his Super Tuesday rally after winning the Georgia primary this week, Newt Gingrich, a White House contender, devoted much of his speech to attacking Obama for the higher prices, even misquoting a line from the president’s news conference earlier Tuesday to make it sound as though Obama cares about gas prices only because he is up for reelection. Gingrich repeated his implausible pledge that he would get gas prices down to $2.50 a gallon.

Other Republicans, meanwhile, continue to allege that Obama has been attempting to drive up gas prices. “It’s my view that the administration’s policies are actually designed to bring about higher gas prices,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said in a floor speech Wednesday morning.

On the other side of the Capitol complex, another Kentuckian, Rep. Ed Whitfield, kicked off the hearing on gas prices with a similar theme: “When President Obama took office, the average gasoline price was around $1.85 a gallon, and today it’s over $3.60 per gallon. I do not intend today to place all of the blame on the president, but I’m gonna give him some of it.” Actually, Whitfield gave Obama so much blame that he got lost in his notes. “I’m having some difficulty reading my own writing,” he acknowledged.

Republicans weren’t quite so out of sorts when gas prices exceeded $4 a gallon in the summer of 2008, during George W. Bush’s tenure. Democrats tried to remind them Wednesday of their selective outrage. “Let’s quit BS-ing the American people that there’s some policy that any president, Democrat or Republican, or any Congress can do to affect the price of a world commodity,” suggested Rep. Mike Doyle (Pa.).

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) preferred to label the Republican argument “poppycock.”

But Republicans correctly judged that they had a political winner. “It just looks to me,” declared Rep. Morgan Griffith (Va.), “like this administration has an all-of-the-above policy to raise the cost of energy.”

Rep. Joe Barton (Tex.) said that for every penny increase in gas, “that’s $1.4 million a day” in higher costs.

“Billion,” corrected Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.).

“Billion? Is it billion or million?” Barton inquired.

“Billion,” Upton assured him.

Million, billion, whatever. In this fight, the facts don’t matter.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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