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Fuelish Democrats By: Fred Barnes
The Weekly Standard | Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Republicans finally have a winning argument on a big issue, and they'd better make the most of it. It starts with high gasoline prices--the single most infuriating issue to voters these days--but doesn't end there.

Democrats are not being blamed for causing the price of gasoline to reach $4 a gallon, at least by the public and at least for now. Where Democrats have stumbled embarrassingly is in their campaign to persuade the public that the American oil industry is the chief culprit. A Gallup national poll in May found only 20 percent blame the oil companies for gouging, down from 34 percent a year ago.

Where Republicans have succeeded is in selling their solution to soaring gas prices: drilling for oil offshore and on federal lands, areas now off limits. In the Gallup survey, support for drilling in precisely these areas jumped from 41 percent in 2007 to 57 percent in May.

So Republicans have an issue to exploit. And it's one on which Democrats are especially vulnerable because they promised in the 2006 campaign to offer a "common sense" plan to curb gas prices. They have yet to produce one, and the price per gallon of gas has risen by more than $1.60 since Democrats took control of Congress in January 2007.

Democrats have also insisted--unwisely, it turns out--on pushing to enact a global warming bill that would further boost the price of gas and rake in trillions of dollars in new revenue. This might have made sense a few years ago, but not in the days of public anger over $4 a gallon gasoline.

As a result, an amazing role reversal occurred on Capitol Hill last week. Republicans, once fearful of the climate change issue, suddenly demanded more debate in Congress on global warming legislation. Democrats, who had earlier promoted the legislation as a top priority, turned squeamish and quickly dropped the issue before it could do serious political harm.

Both House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid have cast global warming as the greatest threat facing America today. In fact, Pelosi was so concerned about this grave threat that, shortly after taking charge of the House, she vowed to bring a global warming bill to the floor by July 4, 2007. Now, though a bill is ready, she's unlikely to schedule it for debate and a vote in 2008.

Spotting an opening, House Republican leader John Boehner has made Pelosi his chief target on gas prices. He needles her relentlessly. Week after week since last winter, he's dwelled on what he calls the "Pelosi premium." This is the portion of the price increase which he attributes to her inaction.

Last week, he asked her to bring the global warming bill up for full House consideration, knowing full well Pelosi has no intention of doing so. He wants the measure to get "the time and attention it deserves during these truly unprecedented times for families and small businesses," Boehner said sarcastically.

Meanwhile, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell jumped on the gasoline issue. "Why on earth are we considering a bill that would raise gas prices even higher than they already are?" he said. Reid's response was to halt consideration of the bill. Earlier, Democrats had blocked a vote on a McConnell amendment to suspend global warming legislation, once enacted, should it begin to drive up gasoline prices.

It wasn't only Democrats who were on the defensive. So was the environmental lobby, which had eagerly anticipated a debate on global warming and possible passage of legislation this year. Instead, environmentalists took a rare beating in Washington and, for the moment anyway, emerged as a liability to Democrats. Their opposition to any effort to slash gas prices make environmentalists an unattractive ally.

On top of that, the key element of the bill, the so-called cap and trade, took a political and intellectual thrashing. Long touted by environmentalists, cap and trade would sharply limit carbon emissions and allow companies to swap allowances on emissions, letting those with heavy levels of emissions acquire them from companies with low levels. Republicans drew attention to the downside of cap and trade, including slower economic growth, industries moving overseas to countries without curbs on carbon omissions, and a "hidden tax" in the form of revenues collected by Washington.

On gas prices, Republicans have been the beneficiary of a political windfall. The question is whether they can make the most of it. The answer: Maybe, but it's not a slam dunk.

It's sensible for House Republicans to continue holding press conferences at gas stations. But, John McCain is a problem. He opposes drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR), though he has come around on increased domestic production in other areas (except off the coast of Florida). Flipping on ANWR may be too much for McCain, though doing so would be consistent with his national security argument against spending billions for Middle East oil.

There's a broader issue than gas prices and oil production. What's the public's main complaint, identified in poll after poll, about the Democratic Congress? Inaction. Congress has done nothing that matters. Energy is but one of the huge issues facing the country on which Democrats have failed to act. There's also immigration, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and health care, to name a few.

This is indeed a do-nothing Congress. The stance by Republicans on gas prices gives them the credibility to make that point. But they must enlarge it by taking on every big issue they can: Offer solutions and dare Democrats to act. McCain can help by embracing a sweeping reform agenda. What have he and Republicans got to lose?

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.


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