06/13/2008 05:27 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Will High Gas Prices Be A Campaign Issue -- Against Obama and the Democrats?

Could high gasoline prices become a successful election-year sledgehammer - against Obama and the Democrats? That might seem unlikely, given that oil was trading at $24 a barrel when the GOP took office in 2001 and was floating between $134 and $140 this week. With a record like that, and a Republican Party dominated by oil interests and lobbyists, Democrats might be tempted to ask: How they're going to pull off a strategy like that - by declaring "Mission Accomplished"?

The answer might be "Yeah, pretty much." Remember, the Republicans won the 2004 election by combining audacious arguments with fear-mongering attacks on Democrats. Democrats would be unwise to assume that the Right isn't gearing up to do the same thing now.

In fact, there's evidence that they already are. Earlier this week the McCain camp attacked Obama by distorting some of his statements, claiming he had said American should "get used to higher gas prices" and suggesting he hoped that gasoline costs would continue to rise.

He had done nothing of the kind, of course. A transcript of the interview in question shows that Obama proposed interim tax relief for the cost of oil, combined with longer-term strategies for reducing U.S. oil consumption. As most policy experts know, reduced consumption would immediately lower household expenditures for oil (if you use less, you pay less) and could put downward pressure on prices by reducing demand.

When Obama noted that we "can't artificially lower gas prices," he was referring to the pandering "summer gas holiday" that McCain has adopted. He wasn't saying we shouldn't lower gas prices. He was merely pointing out that these types of gimmicks usually backfire, creating greater oil company profits without saving any money for consumers.

Now we have an extreme hard-Right group called "The Center for Individual Freedom" arguing, in shrieking capital letters, that "liberals and RINOs in Congress are actively and aggressively trying to RAISE THE PRICE OF GASOLINE!"

Did you miss that story? Everybody did. They go on to say:

"Just last week, the Senate attempted to pass the Boxer Climate Tax bill, a deceptive piece of legislation that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged would raise the price of gasoline at the pump BY ANOTHER $1.40 a gallon!"

This is classic conservative name-switching, like calling the inheritance tax as "death tax." By "Boxer Climate Tax bill," they actually mean the "Lieberman-Warner climate bill." That bill was introduced by two John McCain supporters. One's a Republican (or should that be "both"?), and one is Sen. McCain's official "ball-bearing checker." Sen. Boxer was a cosponsor, and brought it to the Senate for a vote.

The Lieberman-Warner bill specifically avoids taxing polluters directly. It used a "cap-and-trade" approach that applies market principles to reducing pollution. (The Union of Concerned Scientists provides a good summary of cap-and-trade.) Could "cap and trade" increase costs at the gas pump? Yes, potentially, with a slow rise of pennies per year that is offset by clean energy and reduced consumption.

We've tried a different approach for the last seven years: We've turned the reins of government over to two oil barons and the entire energy industry lobby. How's that working out for you? In December of 2000 we were paying an average of $1.65 per gallon at the pump. Last night I paid $4.86. That's an increase of nearly 300 percent - an average of 46 cents per year. If we have four more years of the same results under McCain, we'll be paying $8 for a gallon of gas by 2012. (That's using a pennies-per-year calculation; calculating the trend on a percentage basis puts us in the $14 range at the end of a McCain first term.)

The Bush Administration EPA - that is to say, a potentially hostile force - analyzed Warner-Lieberman and said it might increase costs by 53 cents per gallon by 2030 (less than 2-1/2 cents per year). And that's without taking into account the enormous range of other offsetting measures that factor into a sane environmental policy. But even this (possibly unfriendly) analysis gives us a total cost increase over 22 years that's about the same as we've paid for each year of the Bush Administration - except that none of that money's gone into government coffers and pollution hasn't been reduced.

But wait, say conservatives - what if McCain doesn't pursue the same policies as Bush/Cheney? He says he won't. In fact, he claims to support ... get ready ... a cap-and-trade approach. But isn't that what the Right was just calling a "climate tax"? Yes. (Robert Reich details the differences between Democratic versions of cap-and-trade and McCain's, which is softer on the big polluters who are already benefiting from windfall profits.)

So McCain will either give us more of the same disastrous policies, or create a "climate tax" of his own - one that's less effective in reducing emissions and easier on the big polluters. And is McCain likely to push the tax relief or the offsetting new technologies the Democrats have proposed to ease the pain for ordinary Americans? Hmm. What do you think?

So, you may be asking, how can the Republicans expect to get away with a strategy like this? Isn't that the Audacity of Chutzpah? Maybe ... but look what they've been able to get away with since 2001. They have a successful track record in benefiting from catastrophes of their own making. One thing that might stop them this year is a vigilant press that's capable of explaining complex policy issues in an honest, neutral way that doesn't permit demagoguery.

The only reasonable question to ask in that case is: What's Plan B?

Plan B is a smart, aggressive strategy in which Democrats and their allies respond to these accusations quickly, directly, and intelligently. Will they do it? To be continued ...

RJ Eskow blogs:

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