Gas-Tax Tussle

A policy fight breaks out in the Democratic race.

Hillary Clinton

A lot of people are having a good chuckle over Hillary Clinton’s frustrating encounter with a coffee maker at the gas station market. If she’s not ready to make a latte from Day 1, she won’t be awake enough to take the 3 a.m. phone call.

While the coffee maker was rejecting Clinton, economists and policymakers were reacting the same way to the proposal she’d gone to the gas station to promote. Clinton’s proposal to lift the 18-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax has been roundly criticized by experts of all ideological stripes for doing little to lighten the burden on drivers while further unbalancing the budget and encouraging environmentally bad behavior. We should be doing the opposite.

Criticism has also come from writers and editorial boards that see the move as a cheap pander. Politicians arrayed against the plan include New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York Gov. David Paterson, and Nancy Pelosi. “There is no reason to believe any [savings from the] moratorium on the gas tax will be passed on to consumers,” said the House speaker.

Barack Obama has also been hammering at Clinton’s proposal for being unsound. But she isn’t about to back down. And so as the Democratic campaign heads into the Indiana and North Carolina primaries on Tuesday, the candidates are having a rare extended policy spat. Each side thinks it works politically for them. Gas prices are the issue people are paying the most attention to, according to the latest Pew Research poll.

Extended policy fights between Clinton and Obama have so far been infrequent, usually because one side doesn’t want to engage. When Sen. Obama raises the issue of Iraq, Sen. Clinton wants to move away from it lest she have to talk about her vote authorizing the use of force in 2002. When Clinton talks about health care, Obama shifts from policy specifics to how the differences between their respective plans are less important than which of them has the political skills to rally the nation behind universal health care.

Embracing the gas-tax fight allows Clinton to assume the posture of a fighter sticking up for economically hard-pressed voters, the bloc that Obama has trouble wooing. Clinton doesn’t have to worry about the flurry of substantive critiques of the plan—in fact, she might relish them. She can ignore the substance and respond by playing the elitism card. Clinton strategist Geoff Garin deployed it on a conference call with reporters, and Clinton used the tactic on the trail. “I find it, frankly, a little offensive that people who don’t have to worry about filling up their gas tank or what they buy when they go to the supermarket think it’s somehow illegitimate to provide relief for … millions and millions of Americans,” Clinton told a town hall in Brownsburg, Ind., on Thursday morning.

To show that Obama was out of touch with regular people—can’t hit that nail too many times—the Clinton campaign sent reporters a YouTube clip of a voter questioning the candidate’s position. “What’s wrong with a short-term fix?” asks the elderly woman. “A lot of us are short-term.” The clip doesn’t include Obama’s answer, and when I asked a Clinton aide for it, I got a quip: “He told her she was clinging to her position out of bitterness.” (Even when they’re joking, the Clinton team is on-message, flicking at Obama’s remarks about people who live in small towns.)

Embracing intellectual obtuseness and deflecting criticism with charges of elitism is a tactic George Bush often deployed while campaigning. It’s striking to see Clinton do it because she has been a regular and harsh critic of Bush’s blindness to expert opinion. It’s even more striking to hear her aides actually sound like Bush administration officials. When I asked Communications Director Howard Wolfson if the Clinton team could offer any intellectual ballast for the gas-tax vacation, given that so many policymakers had criticized it, he said, “The presidency requires leadership. … There are times when the president does something that the group of experts, quote unquote, does not agree with. Presidents get advice and then act, and that is what Senator Clinton is doing.” Or, as George Bush used to put it: A leader leads. Even if off a cliff.

The Obama campaign, for its part, is trying to make the dispute over the gas tax “a proxy for the fight in the entire campaign,” as one aide put it. Happy to talk about anything other than the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama has attacked the gas-tax holiday at every stop for the last several days. He hopes that voters will reward him for telling truths against his political self-interest, a claim he often makes for himself but that he doesn’t always back up. He needs to court blue-collar voters, yes, but he’s willing to potentially alienate them when a policy is just too dumb to support—or hope that they’ll understand that.

Obama and his aides also hope their attack exposes Clinton’s vulnerability with voters who think she’s dishonest—particularly independents and Republicans who can vote in the Indiana primary. That’s why Obama’s ad in response to Clinton’s spot criticizing him for not backing the plan was called “Truth.” On Friday, Obama released a second ad that hammers Clinton directly for pandering. He also made the attack the center of his press conference Friday morning, claiming the gas-tax hike would cost Indiana 6,000 jobs.

The risk for Obama in playing up his Washington-outsider message is not just that downscale voters paying nearly $4 a gallon won’t give him credit for his principled stand. Republicans are going after him too, trying to paint his opposition to the gas-tax respite as a Mondale-like affection for tax increases. If the pattern of the last few weeks holds, Clinton will use those Republican attacks to argue that Obama is vulnerable in the general election to the GOP saw that he’s an old-style liberal.

And so heading into the biggest remaining contests of the primaries, both candidates are trying trick shots. Clinton, who is running as an expert on the economy, seeks to win by taking a stand against economic experts. Obama, who has spent the week playing basketball, drinking beer, and looking like a regular guy, is trying to win by doubling down on a position that the regular guy might not like. The conventional calculus would suggest that Clinton’s pander will work. Her losing policy might net her a political win, even if she failed with the coffee grounds.