For more than a year, pundits have grossly underestimated Al Gore's prospects of winning the presidency. No matter what you think of him or how small a role you think he has played, Gore has the best material arguments any virtual incumbent could hope for: eight years of relative peace and unprecedented prosperity, lower crime rates, and other achievements. Republicans would kill to have that record. They have no real hope of beating Gore unless an issue emerges that threatens the current prosperity and can be linked to the vice president. Now they may have such an issue: rising gas prices.
This is an opportunity to observe how politicians transform a new event or trend into a campaign issue. Republicans used to win elections by championing tax cuts, but lately that message hasn't worked because people don't feel as squeezed as before. Republicans used to win by championing national security, but lately that hasn't worked because no foreign regime has threatened or humiliated the United States. And Republicans used to win by defending economic growth against environmental regulation, but lately that hasn't worked because there's been plenty of growth. The rise in gas prices is enabling the GOP to revive those themes and turn them against Gore.
First, Republicans are accusing Gore of exacerbating the oil squeeze on consumers by raising the federal tax on gasoline. For seven years, Gore has bragged about casting "the tie-breaking vote" for President Clinton's "economic plan" in 1993. Gore has emphasized one aspect of this plan: its gradual elimination of the federal deficit. Republicans are now emphasizing a different aspect: the plan's 4-cents-per-gallon hike in the gas tax. Framed this way, Gore's "tie-breaking vote" becomes a Republican issue. To make sure voters associate the tax with Gore, Republicans are repeating not an argument or an assertion, but a phrase. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott says Congress should "repeal the Gore gas tax." Aides to George W. Bush say he'll make this case against Gore.
Second, Republicans are calling Gore and Clinton soft on oil-producing countries. At a press conference last week, Republican senators took turns deriding Energy Secretary Bill Richardson for visiting "foreign" regimes in the "Mideast" with a "tin cup," "begging" them to lower oil prices by increasing production. The senators called Richardson's trip "unseemly" and argued that his hosts had humiliated the United States by telling Richardson he would have to wait for OPEC's next meeting.
To convert gas prices into a national security issue, the GOP is recycling the images and phrases of the 1970s. At their press conference, the Republican senators revived the foreign policy buzzword of that era, "energy security." They likened the current gas price surge to the "oil embargo" of the 1970s, and they repeated the dreaded M-word of that decade, warning of a "malaise of declining domestic production." On CNN, New York Senate candidate Rudy Giuliani resumed the anti-OPEC rhetoric of the oil-shock years, arguing that Clinton has been "napping while OPEC was gouging America." On the bright side, said Giuliani, this rip-off "gives us a chance as Republicans to illustrate a lot of problems in the Clinton-Gore foreign policy."
Third, Republicans are turning Gore's environmentalism into an economic issue. Republicans have complained for years that his conservationism is costly, but voters have ignored them because the economy is roaring. Now the GOP can point to a specific cost—gas prices—that consumers are beginning to feel. In addition to the gas tax, Republicans are accusing Gore of limiting the oil supply, and thereby propping up foreign oil prices, by refusing to allow drilling along the U.S. coast and in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Again, notice the GOP's language. To make voters feel good about drilling, Bush and other Republicans call it "exploration," which they contrast with government "regulation." (Democrats speak instead of "polluters" and "conservation.") And to attract the middle class, Republicans accuse environmental "elitists" of depriving working people of the affordable gasoline they need to earn a living. "When this administration had to choose between truckers and rich environmental extremists, it chose rich environmental extremists," Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, charged last week.
Gore's team is already preparing rebuttals. He'll answer Bush's proposed cut in the gas tax the same way he answers Bush's tax cuts in general: calling it a risky assault on fiscal responsibility and programs voters want. By eliminating revenue, it would take "$600 million per month out of the Highway Trust Fund," angering Americans who "want their highways improved," Richardson said on television this weekend. It's "reckless" and would "leave our roads and highways in disrepair," added a Gore spokesman. White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart cautioned that cutting the gas tax might endanger "fiscal discipline."
Bush may have other problems exploiting the tax angle. What Republicans call the "Gore gas tax" is only the final 4.3 cents that was added to the federal gas tax in 1993, bringing the total tax to 18.4 cents. Gore aides point out that the previous 5-cent increase was adopted in 1990, under President You-Know-Who. No doubt Gore will soon be talking about the "Bush gas tax." He'll also press Bush to explain his own state gas tax. Gore's spokesman has begun pounding this point: "There's a 20-cent gas tax in Texas. Why hasn't [Bush] done anything about that?"
On the foreign-policy and environmental angles, Gore has a tougher problem. He has tried to sell fuel-conservation measures as economically beneficial, but most voters find this argument counterintuitive. They want to protect the environment, but not if it hits them in the wallet. And as long as Clinton and Gore rely on diplomacy to persuade oil-rich nations to increase supply, they'll have a hard time fending off charges of liberal timidity and weakness. "I'm not begging them. I'm being very firm," Richardson sniffed on television this weekend. The more he vouched for his "firmness," the weaker he looked.
The gas-price issue may not propel Bush to victory. But it has given him his first glimmer of credible hope. Last week, a reporter asked Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle whether Republicans might hang the issue "around Al Gore's neck." Daschle scoffed, "They're groping for an issue. They haven't been able to find one yet." Now they have.