A policy fight breaks out in the Democratic race.

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May 2 2008 12:29 PM

Gas-Tax Tussle

A policy fight breaks out in the Democratic race.

Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Hillary Clinton

A lot of people are having a good chuckle over Hillary Clinton's frustrating encounter with a coffee maker at the gas station market. If she's not ready to make a latte from Day 1, she won't be awake enough to take the 3 a.m. phone call.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.

While the coffee maker was rejecting Clinton, economists and policymakers were reacting the same way to the proposal she'd gone to the gas station to promote. Clinton's proposal to lift the 18-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax has been roundly criticized by experts of all ideological stripes for doing little to lighten the burden on drivers while further unbalancing the budget and encouraging environmentally bad behavior. We should be doing the opposite.

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Criticism has also come from writers and editorial boards that see the move as a cheap pander. Politicians arrayed against the plan include New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York Gov. David Paterson, and Nancy Pelosi. "There is no reason to believe any [savings from the] moratorium on the gas tax will be passed on to consumers," said the House speaker.

Barack Obama has also been hammering at Clinton's proposal for being unsound. But she isn't about to back down. And so as the Democratic campaign heads into the Indiana and North Carolina primaries on Tuesday, the candidates are having a rare extended policy spat. Each side thinks it works politically for them. Gas prices are the issue people are paying the most attention to, according to the latest Pew Research poll.

Extended policy fights between Clinton and Obama have so far been infrequent, usually because one side doesn't want to engage. When Sen. Obama raises the issue of Iraq, Sen. Clinton wants to move away from it lest she have to talk about her vote authorizing the use of force in 2002. When Clinton talks about health care, Obama shifts from policy specifics to how the differences between their respective plans are less important than which of them has the political skills to rally the nation behind universal health care.

Embracing the gas-tax fight allows Clinton to assume the posture of a fighter sticking up for economically hard-pressed voters, the bloc that Obama has trouble wooing. Clinton doesn't have to worry about the flurry of substantive critiques of the plan—in fact, she might relish them. She can ignore the substance and respond by playing the elitism card. Clinton strategist Geoff Garin deployed it on a conference call with reporters, and Clinton used the tactic on the trail. "I find it, frankly, a little offensive that people who don't have to worry about filling up their gas tank or what they buy when they go to the supermarket think it's somehow illegitimate to provide relief for … millions and millions of Americans," Clinton told a town hall in Brownsburg, Ind., on Thursday morning.