04/16/2012 12:12 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2012

Gas Prices: A Bad Issue for the GOP

There's little doubt about it: Republicans -- my party -- are probably going to try to make gas prices an issue in the next election. On its surface, the issue has some plausibility: gas prices are nearing their pre-recession highs -- even if they've peaked -- probably aren't going to drop significantly before November. Nearly every American buys gas daily and the suburban/rural Republican base can't easily substitute public transportation or walking for gas purchases. That said, trying to make an issue out of it isn't a good idea for the GOP for at least two reasons: it can't be plausibly blamed on the current President and, even if it works, it will attract voters who won't really support large parts of the Republican Party platform.

First things first: the argument isn't true. Gas is a commodity traded all over the world. National policy just isn't going to impact its price. Canadians, who export huge amounts of gas and have ramped up domestic production at a faster rate than the United States, pay about the same for gas as Americans. It's probable that no U.S. President or, indeed, the leader of any country, can materially impact the price of gas in the short-term with any set of policies. Thus, Obama's energy policies -- nearly all of which I think are bad -- can't plausibly be considered to have made gas more costly. Even if Mitt Romney could win the election by convincing people that Obama's policies have made gas more costly, it's very unlikely that he could do anything that would bring them down.

Of course, since politicians of both parties are perfectly willing to stretch the truth to win elections the argument's falsehood alone isn't a good enough reason.

But there's another, arguably, better reason to think that Republicans shouldn't emphasize gas prices. They're not very important to the people who the Repulican party should be attracting. Although they're highly visible -- what other prices are posted on every street corner?--the typical American family only spends between 5 and 6 percent of its income on gas . Most spend more on dining out. (Spending estimates based on current gas prices, which are widely reported in the media and generally higher, simply reflect the cost of filling up today not how much a family is going to spend on gas in the course of a year.) The people who are most sensitive to gas prices are people with lower incomes who spend a larger percentage of their income on gas. And these aren't the voters Republicans should really want: someone who is struggling to pay for gas isn't going to get fired up for entitlement reform, free trade, or a pro-investment tax code. Even if a strong national defense is important to such voters, few will pick it over entitlement programs that they benefit from.

Indeed, attracting "gas price" voters is likely to send the GOP in the disturbing direction it has headed. Obama is the first Democrat in modern history to win an overall majority of college educated voters and already leads Romney convincingly among the college educated and generally better off voters. The current president, likewise, won a majority of wealthy voters last time around. If Republicans can't win the educated or the well-off, then the party can't stand for much besides a handful of values issues and continued entitlement spending on the elderly. And this agenda, whatever it's merits--I'm pro-life but desperately want entitlement reform -- isn't one that can produce a majority sufficient to govern.

Romney has lots of issues he can run on -- the lackluster recovery, the relative failure of "stimulus" stimulus spending, near-certain cutbacks in defense in a second Obama term -- but gas prices shouldn't be one of them.

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