Politics at the pump

April 01, 2004

PRESIDENT BUSH and his Democratic challenger John Kerry said yesterday that rising gasoline prices are symptomatic of such a gravely serious problem facing the United States that the two agreed not to demagogue the issue for political advantage.

April Fool. Fact is, OPEC's decision this week to tighten the spigot on America's foreign oil sources at a time when gasoline pump prices here are already at a record high was too tempting a topic for either candidate to resist. But while each might have scored a cheap shot or two, neither had any great ideas for short-term relief.

Most intriguing was a proposal Senator Kerry supported 10 years ago that called for raising the federal gasoline tax by 50 cents a gallon to encourage conservation, or at least reduce the budget deficit. But even he's running far and fast from that one now that Bush ads are belittling the idea as "wacky."

Both candidates are indulging in a fair amount of name-calling and finger-pointing. Mr. Kerry blames Mr. Bush for the spike in pump prices, charging the Republican broke a campaign promise to pressure or cajole the Middle East oil sheiks into increasing production when we need them to. He also suggested the United States stop buying high-price oil for its strategic reserves - a tactic likely to have negligible effect.

The best Mr. Bush could do - apart from hammering Mr. Kerry with the familiar "wrong on taxes" refrain - was to whine about the failure of his moribund energy bill, a pork-laden bonanza of energy industry giveaways so thoroughly discredited not even the GOP-led Congress will revive it.

Sadly, though, America's addiction to fossil fuels is gravely serious and deserves to be treated that way. Gasoline prices are still quite low by international standards, and they're lower than they were 20 years ago, when adjusted for inflation. Perhaps higher prices will encourage the development of more hybrid and fuel-efficient vehicles as well as practical alternative energy sources. Cheap gas is not necessarily a good thing for this country. It only encourages more driving, in bigger, dirtier, more dangerous vehicles.

During his Senate career, Mr. Kerry has been a leader in legislative battles to require higher vehicle fuel-efficiency standards and to protect American wildlife areas from being plundered for an oil fix.

He still supports those goals, he says, but they don't make for snappy sound bites like jokes about Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney having to car-pool.

Running for president isn't pretty.

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