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Politicians and pain at the pump: Been there, done that

By Dana Bash and Xuan Thai, CNN
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Political playbook when gas prices high
  • Politicians make familiar moves in times of gas price increases, analysts say
  • Democrats often call for investigations and taxes on big oil
  • Republicans usually push for increased drilling
  • But politicians' rhetoric dies down when prices fall, analysts say
  • Gas Prices
  • Politics
  • Democratic Party
  • Republican Party

Washington (CNN) -- When gas prices started spiking again this month, President Barack Obama turned to a move that worked in the past: Make noise and talk tough about price gouging, then direct his attorney general to launch an investigation.


If that sounds familiar, it is. It's part of the rhetorical playbook politicians have used for years when gas prices go up -- that is until prices fall and what felt like urgent ideas go back on the shelf.

Whether it's "drill, baby, drill" or "investigate, baby, investigate," leaders in Congress and the White House have used the same quick fixes and political rhetoric for years to placate an uneasy electorate during times of price increases at the pump.

The average national price for a gallon of unleaded regular this week is $3.95, according to AAA, and has been falling in recent days. This time last year the average price was $2.90.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, voters started feeling pain at the pump, and Al Gore, then vice president and Democratic candidate, talked about "the need for an investigation of collusion, anti-trust violations and price gouging."

In 2004, gas prices were up again, and Democratic candidate John Kerry told crowds in Iowa that "there has been a real gouging of fuel. ... I sent a letter asking for an investigation into it."

In 2008, President George W. Bush vowed he would make sure states were "monitoring the gasoline prices to make sure consumers are not being gouged."

But experts said that price-gouging investigations don't lead anywhere and that politicians know it.

"That's just camouflage," said Amy Myers Jaffe, director of the Energy Forum at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston.

"That's just 'I want to pretend I'm doing something even, though I'm doing nothing,' " she said.

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Talking about price gouging is historically bipartisan, but each party also turns to its own playbook to try to get the political upper hand when people feel pain at the pump.

For Republicans, their play is drilling for more oil. Gas prices are up, so House Republicans held a vote last week to push to drill more at home.

"You lower energy prices by using more of our own energy," Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, argued during last week's debate on the House floor.

Yet calling for oil drilling domestically is another solution that has been debated for decades.

"We've got abundant supplies of energy here in America, and we better get out there and better start exploring it," then-GOP candidate Bush said during the 2000 campaign.

"Lift the ban on offshore drilling," John McCain roared in 2008 as his running mate, Sarah Palin, stoked crowds with her favorite refrain, "Drill, baby, drill."

To be sure, oil drilling doesn't get far because of environmental concerns in some quarters as well as partisan and regional differences. But politicians also tend to drop it when gas prices fall.

"Politicians swirl around and talk about proposing bills when gasoline prices go up, but then they don't follow through," Jaffe said.

"We stop feeling the pressure to have an energy policy or a good energy bill, and it all passes by us, and that's been the pattern for 30 years," she said.

As for Democrats -- their favorite play is to call for an end to subsidies for oil companies. Democrats in charge of the Senate will haul big oil executives to Capitol Hill for a hearing later this week, and they plan to push legislation cutting subsidies for the largest oil companies and put the money toward deficit reduction.

"They still have a tax loophole that is costing taxpayers $4 billion every year," the president said in a speech last week.

CNN poll: Americans blame oil companies, speculators for prices

Again, this concept is far from new. Democrats slapping oil companies is a standard gas-crisis move.

"Will we have a president who will stand up to big oil interests?" Gore asked when running for president more than a decade ago.

"I have been putting forth a plan that would require oil companies to give up their subsidies," said then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Many experts argue oil companies may be an easy target, but cutting subsidies would not affect gas prices in the short term. In fact, nothing either party is pushing now would.

"There is nothing that a politician talking about in Washington today -- not the Democrats, not the Republicans -- that is going to help the average American at the gasoline pump. These are all red herrings," Jaffe said.

One thing some said politicians can do is to use their leadership positions to urge people to conserve more: drive less, carpool or take public transportation.

But since 1977, when Jimmy Carter got hammered for urging Americans to turn the thermostat down and put on a sweater, most politicians won't go there for fear of looking politically weak.