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The Gas Tax and Governing from the Center

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If Democrats truly have a hard time understanding why the inevitability of a Democrat in the White House in 2009 is looking less certain these day, consider the debate regarding the gasoline tax holiday.

The Moveon.org bunch, egged on by their candidate, Barack Obama, believe that Hillary Clinton is pandering to voters by proposing a summer holiday from the federal taxes imposed on each gallon of gas. Maybe, but isn’t pandering to voters pretty much the first entry under the politician job description? Thus, criticizing a fish for swimming is as useless as it is unnecessary.

The real issues with Clinton’s proposal appears to be two-fold. First, it aligns her with John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate in waiting. Apparently, bi-partisanship is the worst thing that can happen, not the best. There may be differences, even significant ones, between McCain’s and Clinton’s proposals on the gas tax, but figuring them out is a waste of time. Neither proposal stands a chance. On the political scale, there’s a better chance of getting Vladimir Putin and LeBron James together to personally wash each and every car in Washington, D.C. then of getting gas tax holiday enacted.

Second, it doesn’t make much economic sense, or at least the theory goes. Back-of-the-napkin calculations put the potential savings at around $30 a driver, assuming all else remains equal. But as we’re being told, particularly but not exclusively by Obama, all things won’t remain equal. There is the chance, for example, that the oil companies will raise prices. True, but that’s what they do. It’s pretty much in the keeping a fish from swimming category. Moreover, even if oil prices rise, that will be related increase to global demand than the temporary suspension of a federal tax. In other words, as the price of oil rises the impact of a tax holiday rises, not falls, at least until that tax is reinstituted later on.

But the larger issue is one of detachment—from the electorate in general and from those suffering economically in particular. Even if the savings is around $30 a driver, so what? By essentially conceding the money, even at such small levels, to the federal government at the expense of taxpayers pockets, the Democrats who criticize Clinton on this issue only play further into the hands of Republicans. The one criticism of the Democrats that they’ve never been able to shake is that they never met a tax they didn’t like. It’s why McCain made the proposal in the first place. He thought both Democratic candidates would oppose it. Obama played according to script. Clinton threw him a curve ball.

No one’s suggesting that a gas tax holiday is a panacea. In fact, it’s mostly a symbolic gesture. But with the gaping leadership void that is the current administration, every tip of the hat to those suffering the most is greatly appreciated and that’s what this gas tax proposal is. An extra $30 bucks isn’t going to make much of a difference in anyone’s life, even at the outer edges of the have not side of our society. But put it this way: if you had a choice, would you voluntarily part with even $30?

What those in her party who would criticize Clinton over her gas tax proposal don’t get is that the further the economy tanks, the harder it is to convince even the most liberal members of the party to surrender bigger and bigger chunks of their dwindling paychecks to the government.

Clinton is a Democrat through and through, for all the good and suspicion that entails. But what she is starting to figure out along the traveling sideshow that the nomination process has become is what her husband intuitively understood from the outset. Staying in touch with the electorate on a real-time basis isn’t necessarily a bad idea.

Bill Clinton was routinely criticized for governing according to the polls as if that is a universally bad proposition. But if you want to understand why it isn’t nearly as bad as claimed, consider the alternative. Fortunately, under Bush, the examples are plentiful. At virtually every critical juncture of his presidency, Bush has essentially ignored the thoughts and concerns of the electorate in favor of a political philosophy grounded more in theory than reality. Whatever value that approach has, and there is some, it doesn’t trump all. When it does, disaster is sure to follow.

What we’re seeing now from Clinton, and the gas tax proposal is just the most recent example, is the moderating of her approach in order to appease more than the hard core members of her own party. The polls seem to suggest that Obama’s inability to deftly handle Jeremiah Wright is costing him, but the truth is far more nuanced than the suggestion that Wright scares the bejeezus out of people. What’s taking place, slowly and maybe too slowly for Clinton’s chances to be nominee, is that substantively what she has to say on a variety of topics is starting to resonate with more people. And it’s resonating with more people because the solutions she’s offering aren’t so party-centric.

Obama offers hope. Clinton offers pragmatism. It may not be the classic dichotomy, but in fact it’s costing Obama support. Every time Clinton offers a solution that Obama knocks down, he comes across as a professor grading a mid-term exam, knocking her down a letter grade or two because she got one thing or another wrong. When he was the new thing in town that played pretty well. But most Americans tend to have the attention span of a puppy and need constant stimulation to stay interested. Right now Obama is boring them to tears.

This week’s latest defining moment, in the form of the most recent primaries to take place, will come and go without settling the nomination process. But if the only thing the Democrats get out of all this is that the sometimes bloody battle between Clinton and Obama will go on another week further damaging the party, then they really are missing the forest for the trees. Assuming the goal of the Democrats is to take back the White House, this process is far better than they realize.

Even if Obama emerges with the nomination, as expected, having Clinton around to push the dialogue more toward the middle will be to his and the Democrats best interest come November. If Obama doesn’t understand it yet, he better soon. He will be a far better and more electable candidate in November if he becomes more like Clinton, not less. Translated, he better find his center and quick and Clinton remaining in the race offers him the best chance for that to happen.

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About Gary D. Benz

  • Derek

    As usual, I appreciate your insights and thoughtful take on any given subject. Hillary always says she has learned from her failures,[not getting universal healthcare during her husband’s time in office].She has learned how to get things done. Pragmatic is good–and the word I would use to describe her.Compromise is not an ugly word either, I am told. I would ask Obama: “Where’s the hope?”–Kinda like the old fast-food T.V. commercial–“Where’s the beef?” Vision is good–a workable plan is better. A leader with both is best. Thanks for this one, Gary.

  • I want a long range plan concerning the rising cost of gasoline. Congress, Democrats and Republicans voted for our 600 dollar tax rebate. This was an obvious short term deal. Where are the long term solutions. The gasoline tax holiday and our recent take rebates are just like trying to use your credit cards to pay your debts, short term relief with increasing obligations plus interest.

  • Zedd


    It seems that what you are saying is that you like politicians doing their thing at your expense.

    The holiday is not a solution, it is a placebo. It’s $2.16 per tank full, temporarily. Thinking that that helps the masses is insulting.