Democrats Resurrect the Worst Talking Point in Politics

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May 23, 2018

There is nothing more tiresome in Washington than the eternal circle of hypocrisy that comes when the branches of government change hands. What was once presidential overreach and legislating by fiat becomes praiseworthy initiative taking. What was once obstruction becomes #resistance. Former deficit hawks pass trillion dollar bills. The filibuster goes from an outdated usurpation of the voters' will to a time-honored consensus builder.

The most tired example of this phenomenon is the perennial election-year complaint that gas prices are going up and obviously it's the fault of the president. This talking point dates all the way back in the Nixon and Carter administrations, but Democrats perfected the attack when Bush 43 was president and Republicans reclaimed it when Obama took office.

Now it's evidently Democrats' turn again. The Daily Beast reports Monday that they plan to make rising gas prices the centerpiece of their summer election-year attacks against President Donald Trump. Already Chuck Schumer has taken to the Senate floor to attack Trump on the issue, blaming the price increases on his decision to pull out of the Iran deal (an Iran deal Schumer supposedly opposes, but good luck figuring that one out).

But as with the attacks against Bush and Obama, the attack on Trump lacks teeth. Economists widely accept that presidents have only minimal control over gas prices. As University of Chicago economist and Obama advisor Richard H. Thaler noted in 2012, while most Americans think presidents can control gas prices, "any respectable economist" will tell you they cannot.

The Daily Beast piece notes the most recent price increases have little to do with Trump. "Analysts say that the current hike in prices, like those in the past, are tied largely to a mix of industry maintenance decisions, international economic trends and geopolitics that are largely outside the president’s purview," they report. "The chief factor this year appears to be the continued fallout of OPEC’s decision to limit oil production in November 2016—which has fed a steady growth in prices for over a year—and the ripple effects of a robust economy, which has increased gas consumption."

Democrats occasionally understand this principle. "The president is not responsible for the prices anymore than President Reagan was responsible for gas prices," argued former DNC chair Howard Dean in 2012. At other times, they haven't. "Since the Republicans have occupied the White House... gas prices are at record highs," argued a 2008 Democratic radio address from, um, Howard Dean.

Shielded with anonymity, Democrats are open about how cynical their attack is. "It’s a summer rite of passage," a party operative told the Daily Beast. "Only now, for the first time in eight years, we can put it solely on them." (That it's a "summer" rite is no coincidence; federal law requires the use of a different blend of gas beginning each year in April, leading prices to always rise in summer.)

Aside from the Iran deal, the other excuse for why it's okay to attack Trump is that the president took credit for low gas prices last year and blamed Obama for high ones when he was a private citizen. "Trump previously claimed he would have tremendous power over higher gas prices but he has failed to fix them," DNC spokesperson Adrienne Watson told the Beast. The Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart tweeted that, "When it comes to rising gas prices, Trump now must be judged by the same insane standard he imposed on Obama."

He must? Trump also took credit for planes staying up in the air. Does the DCCC plan on running ads claiming that Donald Trump crashed a plane and killed a woman a month ago? If Trump said that he keeps the sun in the sky with daily human sacrifices atop a Mayan pyramid, would Democrats be out there blaming him for the eclipse? Isn't the better (and actually honest) line of criticism that Trump got it wrong in the first place?

In any case, Obama also attacked Bush for high gas prices. If we were to adopt the Democrat's line of thinking, there was nothing illegitimate about Trump's attack in the first place since he was only "playing by their rules," because Obama "must be judged by the same insane standard," or something equally juvenile. Tit-for-tat politics cuts both ways.

It's hard of course to blame Democrats when by most account the gas prices issue resonates strongly with voters. Two-thirds of Americans told Gallup in 2005 they disapproved of Bush's handling of rising gas prices, and nearly an identical percentage told WaPo/ABC News the same about Obama in 2012. As long as the average American remains ignorant about what causes gas prices to rise, Democrats would be fools not to run on it.

The cycle will continue. Republicans will one day lose the White House and complain how President Kimmel isn't doing anything to lower gas prices, while Democrats miraculously remember basic economics and feign outrage. But hopefully one day soon we can bury this talking point. The quickest way to make that happen is if voters wise up to the game and stop taking the bait.