Republicans seem to have a lot of confidence these days when it comes to energy. Much of it apparently still comes from the failure of a certain DOE-backed solar company, as John McCain again showed us last week when he warned from the Senate floor that a Navy biofuels program could turn into “another Solyndra situation.”
The GOP also sees Obama’s delay of the Keystone XL pipeline as a rich source of talking points that can be used not only to support the narrative that Obama is radically environmentalist, but also reinforce the (false) premise that the White House is strangling domestic oil and gas production and thereby causing gas prices to rise. But intellectually dishonest arguments like these leave Republicans vulnerable to opponents armed with easily-Googled facts. And claims like the one Mitt Romney made on Sunday, that Obama actually “wanted to see gasoline prices go up,” are lazy and politically reckless.
The basis is something Steven Chu said in September of 2008, according to the Wall Street Journal. George W. Bush was still President then and Chu was still a scientist only—not yet a scientist-politician. A vast majority of scientists believed then as they do now that humanity must rapidly reduce its consumption of fossil fuels. Any ideas about how to do that in the U.S., Dr. Chu? Well, he says, “somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe,” using federal gas taxes.
Since Obama subsequently put him in charge of his energy department, the President must want to boost prices as well, right? No. Read the very next paragraph of the article (from 2008):
But Mr. Obama has dismissed the idea of boosting the federal gasoline tax, a move energy experts say could be the single most effective step to promote alternative energies and temper demand. Mr. Obama said Sunday that a heightened gas tax would be a “mistake” because it would put “additional burdens on American families right now.”
Presidents don’t want gas prices to rise on their watch, regardless of the circumstances. The political downside is simply too large. Romney and Co. know this—that’s exactly why they are trying to take advantage. But Romney should be more careful in the way he brings up the topic, given Obama’s demonstrated ability to effectively play gas price politics. Instead, the GOP presidential hopeful’s disingenuous regurgitation of a tired attack line make him appear both unserious and unoriginal—to his political detriment.
The President has a set of serious things to say about energy and gas prices. He’ll try to make the case that he’s playing a longer game, meant to build in protection for American consumers against the considerable volatility of the world oil market. To that end, he’s been a supporter of domestic natural gas production from shale. A drastic ratcheting up of automotive fuel-efficiency standards will save voters money at the pump regardless of the price of crude (over which the U.S. President has virtually no influence). And we’re relying less on imported oil.
Romney’s recent comments, meanwhile, suggest he’s not yet ready to offer serious input to the energy debate. When he is, I expect he’ll say more than “Drill, baby, drill!” But so far all he’s done is allow Obama an opportunity to play his favorite role: the adult in the room.
(Update: Lots of interesting data here, presented by the White House but gathered from credible sources.)