Why isn't Bush better at manipulating gas prices?

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Let's assume for a moment that President Bush has a little dial underneath his desk that lets him send gasoline prices up or down, depending on what best suits his political needs. This, evidently, is the belief of a considerable number of Americans, like the 42 percent of respondents in a new Gallup Poll who think the Bush administration is deliberately lowering gas prices to help Republicans in the upcoming November elections. The suspicion isn't really that surprising, given Bush-Cheney ties to Big Oil and Persian Gulf potentates, not to mention demonstrated dishonesty on other big issues like weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Here's my question: Why have the Republicans used the gas-price knob so poorly up till now?

Since the start of the year, gas prices have actually risen about 14 cents per gallon, to a national average of $2.38. Of course it's the declining pump price during the critical voter-impression period–the time frame the typical consumer seems to remember–that's been getting attention. Gas prices have been tumbling since they peaked at about $3 a gallon less than two months ago. What a brilliant move by the Bushies–drive prices well beyond the comfort zone during the summer driving season, to enrich their Big Oil buddies, then promptly lower them for the fall campaigns, knowing, of course, that consumers will have no memory whatsoever of all that dough they shelled out just to drive to the beach.

But why didn't they do that last time? In 2004, when the entire presidency was at stake, not just a number of congressional seats, the White House did a miserable job of managing gas prices. Pump prices started the year at $1.49–comfortable even for SUV owners–then rose steadily to a peak of $2.03 in late May. Over the summer they drifted back down by about 20 cents, but then they rose again right up until Election Day, to about $1.95. If ever Bush needed to pump his pocketbook credentials it was then, when he nearly lost to a very weak opponent.

In fact, Republicans have generally done a lousy job of manipulating gas prices when it would have done them the most good. Back in 1992, when George H. W. Bush lost after one term, he failed to persuade all his oil buddies in Texas and the Middle East to lower gas prices, even after doing them a huge favor by winning the Gulf War. Instead of dipping conveniently, gas prices rose 7 percent from January to November.

From outside the White House, Republicans helped boost gas prices during three of the four elections that took place when Bill Clinton was in office. But the economy was going gangbusters then, and it didn't matter much.

And in 2002, when Republicans held on to both houses of Congress, they allowed gas prices to rise a dangerous 29 percent.

Doubters can look at the numbers themselves, in the historical tables published by the government's Energy Information Administration. (Of course, the EIA might be part of the conspiracy!)

Here's a snapshot of how gas prices have changed during recent election years:

Year    Gas price,
first week Jan.   
Gas price,
first week Nov.
Pct. Change   
1992   $1.04    $1.12     8%   
1994   $0.99   $1.12     13%  
1996   $1.08   $1.23     14%  
1998   $1.09   $1.00     -8%  
2000   $1.26   $1.50     19%  
2002   $1.11   $1.43     29%  
2004   $1.49   $1.99     34%  
2006   $2.44   $12.38     6% (as of 9/25)  

So what is the correlation between Republican political aims and gas prices? If you can divine it, then get some skin in the game and bet your intuition on oil futures. That's where the real money is.

And while you're scanning the numbers, you might notice that some of the biggest swings in gas prices didn't even happen in election years. In the first eight months of 2005, for instance, prices rose 68 percent–and that was before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita sent them far higher. In 2001, from peak to trough, gas prices fell by 60 percent. In fact, practically the only incontrovertible conclusion you can draw from a study of recent gas prices is what every oilman already knows: Gasoline just happens to be one of the most volatile commodities on the market.

But it's an election year. There must be more to it than that.

--Rick Newman