Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Tale of the Missing Corpse

Pity the family of Private Jacob Kovco, the first member of the Australian military to be killed in Iraq. Officials reported Kovco died last week after he was "accidentally shot" inside Baghdad's secure green zone. Kovco was due to be buried near the city of Melbourne with full military honors but the casket that arrived today in Australia was found to contain a body other than his own. An embarrassed Australian Defense Department admitted that the wrong body "accidentally was sent home," apparently due to a mix-up at a private Kuwait mortuary.

Democrats eager to bury Republicans at the polls during November mid-term elections might want to be careful at what they spend the most time taking shots. For the past year, the course of the war in Iraq has been a popular target. Social Security reform and immigration issues have also spent time on their radar. Now Democrats have a new mark in the high price of gasoline.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has been leading the charge in this area. Among other recent statements, she accused – "With skyrocketing gas prices, it is clear that the American people can no longer afford the Republican Rubber Stamp Congress and its failure to stand up to . . . big oil and gas company cronies." Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota has proposed a fifty percent excise tax on windfall oil profits.

It is easy to understand why Democratic leaders would view this situation as fresh meat for the taking. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll is out and President Bush's approval rating is down another point to an all-time low of only thirty-six percent.

However, the biggest drop in the survey, at eleven points in a single month, is in the approval rating of Congress. Respondents listed their chief dissatisfactions with legislators as partisan bickering, lack of progress, and rampant corruption.

Asked what was making them so gloomy, a whopping seventy-seven percent replied they feel uneasy about the economy, due to rising gas prices, higher interest rates, and a larger federal deficit. These were followed in significance by a possible nuclear standoff with Iran, immigration, and the ongoing violence in Iraq.

Republicans have often been more successful at villanizing Democrats as "tax and spend liberals" than they have growing solid voter confidence in the superiority of their own skills and policies. To that end, the words of retiree Jackie Tarone, a Bush voter in a Republican-controlled district near Fort Lauderdale Florida, are particularly chilling for the GOP. Said the pumped-out Tarone, "I don't know which is the lesser of two evils anymore."

Yet there are also cautions for Democrats hidden among all the anti-Republican encouragement offered them by voters. For example, the NBC/WSJ survey still shows voters wanting Democrats to control Congress. However, the margin of preference was a mere six percent, as compared to nine percent back in January or an impressive thirteen percent advantage in March.

Pollsters are quick to note that this drop may not be significant. However, if voters' concerns are shifting from primarily overseas issues to domestic ones, Democrats may have to face a different sort of discontented public. To wit, issues like Iraq and national defense, Social Security reform, and tougher border policies all tend to be seen as Republican competencies (or at least areas of interest), while voters tend to discriminate less about responsibility for high gas prices. And the bad news is that they see all politicians as in the hip pocket of Big Oil because of their need for campaign funds provided by lobbyists.

More to the point, Democrats have had great long-term success with Iraq because the Bush Administration, through a combination of genuine ineptitude and personal convictions, has been unable and unwilling to change their basic strategy there. But Bush and Cheney are not in the hip pocket of Big Oil so much as they come from Big Oil. The oil companies can trust to do them to pretty much do what they want but they also trust what Bush and Cheney tell them.

President Bush has previously said that he will not stand for price gouging by Big Oil. Yet the only thing that has been done since Hurricane Katrina has been an investigation initiated by the Federal Trade Commission and that was at the behest of Congressional Democrats.

Now as oil companies begin announcing a new set of record-breaking First Quarter profits and public outrage intensifies, Bush is calling for that investigation to pick up speed as well as authorizing independent investigations by the Energy and Justice Departments. He has also announced that government deposits to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve will be suspended during the summer, something he has been loath to do until now, in order to increase supply and hopefully hold down prices.

During the summer and fall of 2004, gas prices where I lived stayed surprisingly low, in the $2.20 to $2.40 per gallon range. Almost immediately after the election, they began to climb and have generally stayed there. They had just reached the $3.00 per gallon mark when Bush made his announcement. Within two days, they had dropped to about $2.85 per gallon.

There need be no grand conspiracy here. Oil companies may simply be smart enough to listen to what the President's words are telling them -- knock it off; your high prices could cost us the election and control of Congress.

In light of record-high prices, it is a big temptation for Democrats to excoriate Republicans and attribute the situation to their coziness with Big Oil. Yet the truer those charges are in reality, the easier it will be for Bush, Cheney, and the oil companies to work together to adjust prices at times and in ways that favor Republicans in the election cycle. If so, do not be surprised if gas prices drop somewhere around mid-summer and stay lower than expected, in spite of everything else, through October.

Hopefully, Democrats will have the good sense to push the topic of Republican incompetence in general rather than focusing in on gas prices as their signature issue. Otherwise, like the family and friends of that poor Australian soldier, they may find themselves all dressed up for a funeral but with no corpse to bury. Worse, they will have only themselves to blame for accidentally mixing-up a highly visible liability with a highly exploitable one.

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