RUNNING ON EMPTY

Democrats Prepare Assault on Trump Over Rising Gas Prices

It’s an annual tradition. Only this time, the sitting president has insisted that a president has power over the price at the pump.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Democrats are preparing an aggressive assault on the Trump administration in the coming weeks over the cost of rising gas prices nationally.

The campaign will take place from the halls of Congress to outside the Beltway, with committees and lawmakers painting President Donald Trump as having contributed to people’s pain at the pump. Gas prices are up nationally an estimated 56.2 cents over last year’s average and trending upwards.

One Senate Democratic aide said the topic would be a theme in the ramp up to Memorial Day —when families hit the road— and it would be framed around the notion that the rise in prices has wiped away any financial gains that middle-income Americans may have seen from the tax cuts passed by Republicans at the end of 2017. Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee are, additionally, preparing a report on the financial gains accrued by oil and gas companies from that bill as a matter of contrasting it with the rising prices of gas overall.

"Everyone paying higher gas prices, can thank the GOP for the price hike, and every big oil company executive cashing their paycheck can thank the GOP for the tax break,” said Democratic operative Jesse Ferguson, a veteran of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

Attacks over gas prices are a political perennial, timed to the seasonal hikes that often occurs in the late spring and early summer. Former President Barack Obama was on the receiving end of numerous such campaigns and often dismissed them as electoral theater with no foundational understand of how the oil economy works.

In 2008, the Republican National Committee sent tire gauges to reporters labeled "Barack Obama's Energy Plan" after then candidate Obama said keeping tires properly inflated would matter as much to current gas prices as additional oil drilling. In early 2012, then-House Speaker John Boehner reportedly told his caucus that rising gas prices would be easy political fodder upon which the Republican Party could seize. That same cycle, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney used gas prices against Obama too. “He has not,” Romney said, “pursued policies that convince the world that America is going to become energy secure, energy independent."

Democrats are not unaware of the role reversal they’re now engaged in. Some even cop to the cynicism inherent in it. “It’s a summer rite of passage,” said one party operative. “Only now, for the first time in eight years, we can put it solely on them.”

But others insist that the context and politics are wildly different than just a few years ago. Much of that is owed to Trump’s past words, which will be a component of the Democratic attack against him. For starters, the president took a victory lap over low gas prices during the Fourth of July weekend in 2017. During the Obama-era,Trump repeatedly insisted that a president had direct influence over the price of gasoline, even calling for Obama’s firing in 2012 over the tags at the pump.

“Trump previously claimed he would have tremendous power over higher gas prices but he has failed to fix them,” said Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee. “Soaring prices at the pump more than offset the extremely limited benefits that Republicans claimed the Trump tax gave to working families.”

Trump rarely—if ever—bows to accusations of intellectual inconsistency. And it’s unlikely that he would admit he was wrong during the Obama years. A request for comment to the White House was not returned.

Aanalysts say that the current hike in prices, like those in the past, are tied largely to a mix of industry maintenance decisions, international economic trends and geopolitics that are largely outside the president’s perview. The chief factor this year appears to be the continued fallout of OPEC’s decision to limit oil production in November 2016—which has fed a steady growth in prices for over a year—and the ripple effects of a robust economy, which has increased gas consumption.

But some Trump decisions have had an impact. Sanctions on Venezuela have limited oil exports from that country. The undoing of the Iran nuclear deal, combined with the re-introduction of sanctions, has also made it more difficult for a key source of crude oil to reach the market.

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“Overall, the biggest piece of this puzzle has to do with OPEC and issues outside the president’s purview and control,” said Patrick DeHaan, head of petroleum analysis for GasBuddy. “But certainly one could argue that Trump's fiery rhetoric with Iran is not helping to calm frayed nerves when it comes to oil and how those sanctions would impact the price of oil.”

Democrats quietly began ramping up their attacks on Trump a few weeks back, with a sprinkling of statements putting the hike in prices at his feet. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) mentioned it during a floor speech on May 14. The Democratic National Committee followed with a note about rising prices in a press release the next day. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) released a report on Monday tying Trump’s “incoherent foreign policy” to “higher premiums for Americans at the pump.” And Senate Democrats put out a compilation of local news clips about the rising prices impacting local consumers.

Though it is hardly concrete, data shows some correlation between gas prices and a president’s approval rating, as a memo put together by Wells Fargo noted. At least one Democratic campaign group is going into the field in the coming days to do more polling on the issue.

A House Republican campaign official told The Daily Beast that they had not detected voter reaction to the issue yet. But already, Democrats feel as if there are lines of vulnerability for the president.

A mid-February survey asked respondents who they believed had the most influence over Republicans in Congress. The first answer was self-evident. Fifty percent of respondents said  “wealthy campaign donors.” Not too far behind, however, were “major oil and gas companies,” which was viewed by 26 percent of the respondents as the group with the most power over GOP lawmakers.