When politicians misunderstand the basic assumptions of the electorate, bad things happen to them at election time. It's happening now with the GOP, the voters and oil prices.
The average Republican pol would swear on his or her mother's soul that it is market realities of supply and demand that set the price of oil and gasoline. But voters don't agree.
The Fox News poll of May 2-3 shows how deep voters' distrust is of oil companies and their manipulation of energy prices. Asked "to the best of your knowledge, is the price of oil set by oil companies and manufacturers or do buyers and sellers in the market place set the price based on supply and demand?" voters get it wrong — even Republicans. All voters say that it is set by oil companies by 52 percent to 42 percent; Republicans say that the energy companies set the price by 49-43.
Thus there is a fundamental disjuncture between what Republican politicians and policy types think is at work in the escalation of gas prices and what the voters think is happening.
And also different answers. GOP politicians, and White House operatives, try to address the gas price issue by encouraging increased oil production — drilling in Alaska, off shore, under the bed. Indeed, Democrats also look at supply and demand — though they emphasize conservation, slow driving and increasing fuel-efficiency standards for cars.
But most voters don't buy into either end of the supply/demand equation as the explanation for high prices. For them, it's just the oil companies ripping us off. So, in the view of the American people, the pols' market-oriented remedies miss the point.
The Fox News poll asked voters who is to blame for the oil price spike: The federal government, uncertainty over Iran, curbs on oil drilling in the Arctic, increased use of oil by India and China, driving big cars, hurricane damage to refinery capacity — all those came in behind the oil executives as the cause: Sixty-six percent cited the companies as having a "lot" to do with the price increase. (Even Republicans cited put the oil companies as the No. 1 villain).
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The result is a big loser for the GOP. When the Fox News poll asked who was more responsible for the high gasoline price, Republicans were blamed by 36 percent; Democrats, only 20 percent. (Independents blamed Republicans by 32 percent, Democrats by 11 percent. A full 19 percent of Republicans blamed their own party.)
The answer? Democrats will feature crackdowns on evil oil company executives. But mimicking them wouldn't serve Republicans well — it's a game Democrats will always play better.
No. Republicans need to look at the man in the White House and understand that he is closely linked to the oil industry — which is the source of the problem in the estimation of most voters. It is only by declaring independence of oil politics that Bush can salvage GOP chances for 2006 and beyond.
Bush can outdo the Democrats in only one area: He can lead a national effort to convert from oil to other fuels in the immediate future. He can declare a Manhattan Project to build alcohol fuel plants rapidly and to incentivize the production of cars to run on them.
Those who say that ethanol and alcohol fuels are inefficient need to realize that vast improvements have been made in production efficiency in recent years and more can be expected with economies of scale and new technology.
By moving away from oil dependence, Republicans can move away from the blame for the gasoline price escalation. No other solution will do.