Democrats led by presidential candidate John Kerry faulted President Bush on Tuesday for failing to tamp down gas prices as the political party out of power sought a summertime issue to ignite the election campaign.
Many voters filling their tanks from Concord, N.H., to Miami to Oakland, Calif., said they didn’t know who is to blame for an average price of $2.017 per gallon, the first time the national average has exceeded $2 — the Republicans controlling the White House and Congress, all politicians in Washington or the oil-producing Mideast nations.
“Gas prices aren’t going to govern the way I vote,” said Peter Vanderbout, a heating and ventilation technician putting $47.23 worth of gas in his employer’s Chevrolet Astro van at an Oakland station. “It’s a small issue. There’s a whole bigger picture to look at.”
Said Linda Day, who paid $1.97 per gallon for regular unleaded in Concord: “I don’t think there’s much difference between Democrats or Republicans.”
That didn’t deter Democrats, who delivered a coordinated broadside against the Bush administration, focusing on the business background of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, both of whom have long-standing ties to the oil industry.
Kerry accused the Republican incumbent of breaking a campaign promise to pressure oil-producing nations to increase production to help control soaring prices.
“Where is the president?” Kerry asked in Portland, where gasoline is selling for as much as $2.31 a gallon. “We need a president who is fighting for the American worker, the American family at the fuel pump.”
Democratic governors, members of Congress and the party’s chairman echoed the criticism, arguing that rising gas prices were squeezing the middle class and cutting into Bush’s tax cut. Some, like Kerry, urged increased pressure on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, while others called for tapping into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a notion Kerry does not back.
Ten Democratic governors released a May 18 letter to Bush calling for an Energy Department investigation of the gasoline pricing structure, with three of the governors participating in a Kerry campaign-organized conference call Tuesday to criticize the president.
“That tax cut Mr. Bush is so proud of is being eaten completely by gas prices,” said Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
On Capitol Hill, a group of Democratic senators introduced a resolution calling for the release of 1 million of barrels of oil a day from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for up to 60 days, arguing that would force down gas prices. Said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.: “The administration insists on throwing fuel in the fire.”
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said the administration is “in the pocket of big oil” and isn’t doing enough to hold down fast-rising gasoline prices.
Republicans dismissed the election-year criticism — House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, called it “oil-for-votes” — and renewed their argument that Democrats standing in the way of an energy bill were to blame.
“The president believes like ... Americans do, the gas prices are too high,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “That’s why we need a comprehensive energy plan to address this problem that continues to come up every year.”
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham accused those, mostly Democrats, who are calling for the release of emergency government oil of “playing games with our Strategic Petroleum Reserve,” which he said exists to protect against a severe disruption of supply because of terrorism or another catastrophe. Abraham strongly reiterated that the administration has no plans to either halt the flow of oil into the reserve or to draw on it in an attempt to dampen record-high gasoline prices.
The Strategic Petroleum Reserve — 660 million barrels, or equivalent to more than two months of imports — is in salt domes on the Gulf Coast. It was created after the 1973 oil embargo to counter supply disruptions.
While Abraham and the White House have attempted to use the high energy prices as a rallying point for passage of broad energy legislation by Congress, most energy experts say the measure contains little that would reduce U.S. dependence on oil or affect gasoline or crude oil prices in the short term.
Rising prices seen as hardship
Recent polling shows that more than half of Americans say the rising cost of gasoline has been hard on them financially, while almost a third say it has caused a serious hardship. Questioned last month as to which presidential candidate would do a better job, Americans were evenly split between Bush and Kerry.
Consumers clearly will feel the impact this summer. Americans are expected to take to the roads in record numbers, according to AAA. Nearly 37 million people will travel at least 50 miles from home, an increase of more than 3 1/2 percent over last year, the association said Tuesday.
Democrats hope voters register their dissatisfaction Nov. 2, similar to the view expressed by Alan Merkel, an Oregon businessman filling his rental car in Miami. Asked who is to blame, he said, “It can only be Bush.”
The president might have one advantage: Gas prices in the states that went solidly for Bush in 2000 are some of the cheapest in the country.