WASHINGTON—Americans are mad as heck about soaring gas prices, and Democrats hope they'll take it out on the Republicans who control the federal government in next year's midterm elections.
"Bush does nothing to combat rising prices," the Democratic National Committee said last week in a new attack seeking to link President Bush, his party, gas prices and oil-company profits in the public mind. "Republicans are in the oil companies' pockets and Bush is in the oil companies' pockets."
The White House responds that no one can turn around gas prices instantly, that Bush fought for years to enact an energy bill and that the new plan, signed into law earlier this month, will take years to produce results. "This is a problem that took decades to develop; it's not going to be solved overnight," Deputy White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said.
Polls suggest that most Americans tend to blame oil companies and foreign oil producers more than Bush or other politicians. But if gas prices inflame inflation enough to drag down the economy, that could be the straw that breaks the Republican grip on Congress.
Polls show voters are already deeply unhappy with their lawmakers. Approval ratings for Congress now rival the lows that preceded the 1994 voter revolt, which ended a 40-year Democratic House majority. The news from Iraq isn't brightening the public mood. Throw in resentment of high gasoline prices, topped perhaps by a resulting weak economy, and it could be a rough election year for incumbents of the governing party.
That's exactly what Democrats want.
"Voters who are paying more at the pump are going to make their voice heard in the `06 elections," said Josh Earnest, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.
Democrats note that average gasoline prices were 39 percent higher last week than when Bush was sworn into his second term seven months ago and 75 percent higher than when he first took office in January 2001. They complain that the new energy measure "gives billions in tax breaks to oil companies" that already are enjoying record profits. They said Republicans had received $67 million in contributions from the oil and gas industry since 2000.
Yet Democrats received $17 million from the industry during that period, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, and many of them also voted for the energy bill: 75 in the House, 25 in the Senate.
What would the Democrats do to curb prices? They'd investigate the oil companies and their profits, Earnest said. They also would take some of the oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to the marketplace in an effort to ease prices.
Democrat Al Gore urged tapping the reserve in the 2000 presidential campaign, and President Clinton reluctantly agreed, but it had a negligible impact. In 2004, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry again urged dipping into the reserve to ease gas prices, but Bush refused. He says the reserve should be saved for the purpose it was created for, as an emergency supply in case foreign oil sources are disrupted.
Americans by 2 to 1 think Bush isn't doing an effective job handling energy problems, according to a recent survey for the Associated Press. But when they were asked who they blame for high prices, 52 percent listed oil companies or foreign countries, while 21 percent blamed politicians.
"There's no question gas prices are being felt," said Ed Patru, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party's arm for races in the House of Representatives. "But it's pretty difficult to assign blame to one party or the other for rising gas prices."
He said Democrats were overreaching in search of a national issue to overcome the uphill struggle they face to win back Congress, where Republicans hold majorities of 55-44-1 in the Senate and 232-202-1 in the House. Democrats have to add 15 seats to take the House, but at least 14 seats they now hold are vulnerable to Republican takeover, according to Charles Cook, a respected nonpartisan analyst.
Republican pollster Whit Ayres agreed that gas prices were contributing to a sour public mood, "but Democrats are suffering as much as Republicans from the funk."
To get voters to abandon Republicans and turn to them, Democrats may need to lay out a detailed outline of what they'd do differently on energy and other issues, notably including the Iraq war, some analysts suggested.
"So far the president has dodged the bullet," independent pollster John Zogby said. "If we see gas prices stay as high as they are, Democrats will probably get some sort of message together and Americans may be in a punishing mood. But not yet."
For a detailed look at political contributions from the oil and gas industry from the Center for Responsive Politics, go to www.opensecrets.org/industries/indus.asp?Ind=E01
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): GASPRICES
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050818 GASPRICES poll
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