The Candidates, Gassing

Politics and policy.
June 28 2000 5:31 PM

The Candidates, Gassing

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If George W. Bush and Al Gore had any shame, they'd say nothing about the recent spike in gas prices. After all, both have historically favored high gas prices for elitist--if rather different--reasons. But embarrassment is a quality in short supply on the campaign trail, which may help to explain why both candidates have emerged as cheap-fuel populists, pandering on the issue in a preposterous way. 

Bush's support for high oil prices was a conventional matter of self- and special interest. In the late 1970s and early '80s, he ran a small oil exploration company, the business rationale of which depended on the success of the OPEC cartel. When crude prices tumbled to $10 a barrel in the 1985, it was bad news for Bush personally, for his oil company, for his industry and for his state. That it was good news for just about everyone else in the country is a fact that Bush neglected to note at the time. In fact, as Michael Kinsley points out, Bush expressed his preference for high prices. This was still his position after he'd moved on to baseball. ''We have trouble in the oil states because the President is viewed as favoring cheap energy," Bush wrote to the White House chief of staff in 1992, when he was working on his father's re-election campaign, according to a memo discovered by the Associated Press. The oil and gas industry has supported Bush's campaign lavishly. 

Gore disliked the low energy prices of the 1980s for a very different reason: They encouraged consumption. As an environmentalist concerned with global warming, Gore understood that higher fuel costs would mean incentives for conserving energy and for building fuel-efficient vehicles, a focus of his since his days in the Senate. In his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, Gore proposes a rational mechanism to create such incentives: "higher taxes on fossil fuels." He calls such taxes "one of the logical first steps in changing our policies in a manner consistent with a more responsible approach to the environment." In the book, Gore goes on to argue that strong political leadership could help to overcome public opposition to the idea of fuel taxes. After he became vice president, Gore tried to exercise such leadership. He was the chief advocate inside the White House for a BTU tax. When the BTU tax was defeated in 1993, Gore had to settle for a more modest, 4-cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax.

But that was then. This is now. Here are some quotes from the past few days.

Gore: "I hope the prices come down quickly, and I'm going to make sure they do."

Bush:  "I would work with our friends in OPEC to convince them to open up the spigot and increase the supply."

Gore on his Bush: "My opponent comes out of the oil industry. His experience is as an oil company executive. He called for higher oil prices to boost the oil companies' profits."

Bush on his Gore: "It seems Mr. Gore is running from his own position. On the one hand, he calls for higher gas prices, but now suddenly when the heat is on and prices go up, he folds."

There's not much to say about these comments, except that both candidates are being utterly disingenuous about their own views while describing each other's views cuttingly and precisely. So what would be--in an alternative universe of political consistency--a coherent, politically non-suicidal gas-price policy for the two nominees-to-be?

For Gore, the only reasonable position is the old one he surely still believes in his heart of hearts: that while higher gas prices may be painful in the short term, they are ultimately useful. Higher oil prices serve all of the goals Gore laid out in his energy policy speech this week. They encourage energy conservation. They will spur the development of more efficient vehicles and alternative sources of energy. In his proposal, Gore tries to encourage conservation and energy innovation mainly by means of tax breaks and federal spending. He has proposed tax credits for people who buy hybrid cars and for companies that adopt energy-saving technology. He wants to spend more on public transportation. Gore's energy conservation ideas are good, but they are very expensive. The sensible way to offset the cost of these proposals--$125 billion over five years--would be with tax increases that serve the same purpose as the proposed tax breaks. Paying for conservation incentives with an excise tax on gasoline is logical in the way that paying for health-care reform with higher taxes on cigarettes is logical. The taxes and the spending serve the same goal.

Bush, who isn't concerned about global warming or conservation, is freer to change his mind and support a cheap energy policy. But he should at least convert openly, admitting that cheap gas was about the last thing he wanted as a businessman and politician in Texas. The governor should also stop trying to pin the blame for high gas prices on the current administration, which he says has failed to make OPEC feel guilty for charging so much. Clinton and Gore deserve no more blame for OPEC's policies than Bush does for Mobil's and Exxon's. And as Timothy Noah writes here and here, it's not misbehavior by OPEC or by the oil companies that explains high gas prices the Midwest. "I believe in the free market, in good times and bad," Bush wrote in his book, A Charge To Keep. "Government should not try to control the price of a commodity." Does he really think that, or did it just sound good at the time?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.