A spike in gasoline prices is giving Democrats a rare chance to borrow an old Republican tactic: pounding the occupant of the White House for motorists’ pain at the pump.
They’re unleashing the message with gusto against President Donald Trump, arguing that his foreign policy moves — including his push to reimpose sanctions on Iran — are to blame for a 50-cent-per-gallon surge in prices since he took office. Democrats also note that gas prices are the highest they’ve been in nearly four years despite the multibillion-dollar windfall that oil companies received from the GOP-backed tax bill.
“There’s a straight line between Trump’s policies and the price of gasoline," Rep. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said in a brief interview, echoing a growing chorus of Democrats.
Voters are already feeling spooked: Forty-two percent of Americans won’t take a road trip for summer vacation this year, a much higher percentage of people than last year, and many of them cited higher gas prices as the reason, according to a survey by gas station data company GasBuddy.
But the Democratic message faces a big obstacle, even as the party is riding a wave of optimism to the November midterms: Short of an energy crisis like the one Jimmy Carter faced in his 1980 reelection campaign, it's tough to convince voters the president is to blame for expensive gas, as GOP candidate Mitt Romney found out when he tried to use it against Barack Obama in 2012.
Trump himself frequently criticized Obama for rising gas prices in the run-up to his reelection, tweeting weeks before the November 2012 vote, “Gas prices are at crazy levels--fire Obama!”
GOP lawmakers say they aren’t surprised by the Democrats' efforts, and they doubt voters will buy the attacks.
"Everyone’s going to look for whatever political leverage they have going into an election,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told POLITICO. "[But do] you think that Republicans created the high prices? No."
Still, Democrats were expecting the jump in prices at the pump to nearly $3 a gallon to be a core pocketbook issue for voters on the Memorial Day weekend, which signals the beginning of the high-demand summer driving season.
“I’m going to be having town meetings at home over the course of the week. They’ll be in rural areas. People drive a long way, and they’re not going to see this as an abstract issue,” Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, told POLITICO.
Wyden's panel released a report highlighting the fact that the nation’s four largest oil companies are poised to reap some $15 billion in tax benefits over the next decade from the GOP’s tax law, while gas prices reach their highest levels in years. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) released his own staff report using the same tactic, blaming higher prices on “President Trump’s incoherent foreign policy.”
To be sure, the White House has little control over gas prices, which largely track the movements of the global crude oil market. Those prices have jumped more than 60 percent since June, even as U.S. oil production climbs to record levels. Energy market watchers say the price rally is largely because OPEC and Russia have cooperated to sop up extra supplies in the international markets as demand continues to climb.
In addition, the collapse of Venezuela's oil industry, one of the biggest foreign suppliers to the U.S., has pushed prices up. Its oil exports have fallen by a third from January 2016 amid the country’s political meltdown, and the Trump administration looks poised to place sanctions on the country’s remaining exports.
“Even OPEC could not have hoped for this kind of result,” said Kevin Book, an analyst at the energy consulting firm ClearView Energy.
But analysts also say the White House may indeed be contributing to the rise in prices. Trump’s appointment of John Bolton as his national security adviser has spooked oil traders who worry about tensions in the Middle East, said Citigroup energy analyst Eric Lee. Meanwhile, Trump’s threat to place heavy sanctions on Iran could remove oil from the global markets, and his moving of the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem may irritate Saudi Arabia enough that the kingdom won’t increase its own oil flows to lessen the hurt on U.S. drivers.
“It’s a combination of things, but what really took prices to the current level is U.S. policy or at least uncertainty,” Lee said in an interview.
On Wednesday, a gaggle of Democratic senators including Markey, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Maria Cantwell of Washington and Robert Menendez of New Jersey held a news conference at an Exxon filling station near the Capitol to blame the price increase on Trump.
"It's well known that geopolitical instability drives oil prices, and gas prices, around the world higher and higher," said Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The Trump administration's chaotic approach to foreign policy not only served instability around the world, it certainly serves to drive up oil prices higher and higher."
When asked how any president could affect fuel costs, Schumer told reporters that Trump should pressure OPEC member states and U.S. oil companies to lower their prices.
"He's very, very tight with the crown prince," Schumer said of Trump's relationship with one of Saudi Arabia's top leaders. "He's very, very tight with the head of the UAE, very, very tight, supposedly, with Putin. Why doesn't he use that? Oil companies just got a big tax break. Jawbone them."
Trump and Republicans still have one card to play, analysts said: releasing oil into the market from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a group of storage sites holding about 665 million barrels of crude that the federal government can sell to refiners in emergency situations to tap prices down. That's precisely what some Democrats asked Obama to do in early 2012, saying he should draw from the reserve to ease rapidly rising prices that posed dangers to both the party's electoral prospects and the economy. Obama didn't take their advice, but a year earlier he had ordered the release of 30 million barrels to offset the disruption of oil supplies from the Middle East amid the Arab Spring.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the president were to consider the use of the SPR to dampen prices to play to his base for the midterm elections,” said Gary Ross, head of global oil analytics at S&P Global Platts. “He might see such as a signal that he cares, and one that might deflect some criticism for higher gasoline prices due to Iranian sanctions.”
White House and Energy Department spokespeople declined to answer questions about whether the administration would consider an SPR release if prices continue to climb.