How To Beat Gas Tax Demagoguery

by Jonathan Chait | May 1, 2008

The Clinton and McCain campaign have defended their plant to suspend the federal gasoline tax in strikingly similar terms. Clinton's spokesman Geoff Garin says:

"Every penny counts," Garin said, and insisted that the holiday will save $70 per driver (not $30, as Obama claims).“If you live in the center of the city it may not be a big deal.”

"There’s a real gap here of how some people see this from 30,000 feet", he continued, and how  North Carolina and Indiana residents  "experience it every day."

And John McCain, when asked about New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's opposition to the tax suspension, replied:

Appearing on CNN's "American Morning," McCain noted his respect for the Pulitzer winner but said Americans deserve "just a little break this summer."

But then he went further.

"And I understand in New York City that you don't really drive a long way most of the time," McCain said.  "But -- and then maybe you're chauffeured."

The common thread here is anti-intellectual, populist demagoguery. Economists believe the gas tax suspension won't help consumers. Under current market conditions, the after-tax price of gasoline won't fall. (And the precedent this would set would be a disaster for the future of weaning Americans off of cheap, carbon-intensive fuel.) So the fact that economists or Tom Friedman may live in cities is obviously not relevant at all. I can imagine Clinton and McCain promising to solve the health care crisis by promising free government-issued leeches, and when doctors insist the leeches won't help, they reply that it's easy for rich doctors with their lavish medical plans to say we don't need a solution.

Generally, betting on the intelligence of the American public is a bad move. But, like Noam, I think this is a great fight for Obama right now. Here's how pointing out his refusal to pander on the gas tax helps Obama:

1. Obama needs to move the narrative past race/class/gender splits, and the gas tax -- a substantive issue where the campaigns clearly differ -- is the only path that's offering itself right now.

2. Mark Schmitt once wrote, "It's not what you say about the issues, it's what the issues say about you." In other words, the specific substance of a candidate's positions matters less than the meta-narrative those issues create around the candidate. John McCain's endorsement of campaign finance reform helped him, not because the public was champing at the bit to ban soft money, but because it suggested that McCain was an independent-minded reformer. Opposing the gas tax suspension positions Obama the same way.

3. As Noam has pointed it, it allows him to tie Clinton to McCain. Her political strength is her wonkiness, and her weakness is her reputation for dishonesty and ruthlessness. This issue cuts away at her strength and  reinforces her weakness.

4. It lets him tie McCain to Clinton. McCain's biggest asset is his reputation as a truth-teller. By pandering on an issue where the whole news media knows he's wrong, McCain is squandering his most precious asset. So Obama hammering this issue now will pay dividends in the general election.

--Jonathan Chait

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/the-plank/how-beat-gas-tax-demagoguery