Romney could go after Obama gas prices, but problems lurk


With gas prices on the rise for a month and likely to make 2012 the most expensive year on record at the pump, why hasn’t Mitt Romney resumed his drubbing of President Obama on this inescapable pocketbook pain?

The Republican presidential candidate will doubtless slam Obama for high gas prices, as he did last spring. But it’s not an entirely clean hit for Romney, who wrote a book that described how higher energy prices could create some desirable outcomes — like greater conservation.

And trying to play politics with higher gas prices has been shown by one political analysis not to work — or to work only when the fuel price spikes contribute to Americans’ overall feelings of economic trepidation.


Romney last raised the gas issue in the spring and, no coincidence, the average price nationally of a gallon peaked in April at $3.94, while jumping to well above $4 in California and other states with higher taxes and smog-reducing additives. The Republican accused Obama then of having a strategy to “see energy prices rise,” and poked fun at his expected fall election opponent for once saying he would like gasoline prices to “change gradually.”

As with other issues — such as abortion rights and gun control — the Republican’s ability to attack with abandon may be compromised by the fact that he would be criticizing a position that he seemed to previously hold himself.

In his 2010 book “No Apology,” Romney touted the advantages of gradual increases in energy costs. “Higher energy prices would encourage energy efficiency across the full array of American businesses and citizens,” he wrote. “It would provide industries of all kinds with a predictable outlook for energy costs, allowing them to confidently invest in growth.”

Gas prices become one of those issues where the most partisan voters have short memories — convinced the president of the other party can do something about gas prices, but just as sure that gas prices are immune to presidential action when their own man sits in the Oval Office.

Some of the media outlets that might normally tout a message blaming Obama for higher gas prices also could be in a bind, given their past reporting. Several Fox News personalities, for example, said in 2008 that President George W. Bush couldn’t be blamed for a spike in gas prices. Neil Cavuto insisted market forces were at play, as did frequent Fox guest Cal Thomas.

Greta Van Susteren had on an expert in 2008 who described how the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling would increase American petroleum supplies by only a tiny fraction. And Bill O’Reilly explained how cutting gas prices was all about conservation. “Sell those SUVs, ride a bike when you can,” O’Reilly urged. “If all of us bought 10% less gas, prices would fall fast.”


The gas card will be played, in all likelihood, and it may contribute to some negative views of Obama if the overall economy continues to stagger. But analysts are not yet predicting the most problematic gas scenario for the incumbent — prices nationally settling at over $4 a gallon. That could be a psychological tipping point.

The findings of a Yale University economist suggest none of it may be of much consequence. Ray Fair looked at every presidential election back to 1948 and found no correlation between spiking gas prices and the electability of the incumbent. One example cited by Fair: Republican incumbent President George H.W. Bush lost with low gas prices in 1992 (although with a widely held public view of the economy as weak). In 2004, gas hovered at a high point but Bush’s son, George W., won reelection.

james.rainey@latimes.comTwitter: @latimesrainey