Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Expensive Gas, Cheap Leadership

James Skillen


May 13, 1996

Bill Clinton and Bob Dole have had years to develop proposals for dealing with America's serious problems—Social Security going bust, the national decline in education, an unresolved medical insurance crisis, and the increasing consumption of non-renewable energy resources, to name but four. Election-year debates and creative energies ought to be focused here, and the two rivals should be helping us make the tough choices now so our children will inherit more than the debts and debris of our irresponsibilities. By this stage in the election campaign, the presidential contenders should be clarifying their contrasting priority lists as they wrap up an agreement on a seven-year budget-balancing program.

Sadly, however, what we actually get is political pandering at its worst. Gasoline prices suddenly start to shoot up. Why? For many reasons, but mainly because Americans are guzzling more gas than ever and have invested relatively little in long-term energy security. The law of supply and demand, coupled with international oil politics, still has consequences.

More sudden than the increase in gas prices, however, was President Clinton's rush to score some political points. He pretended he could do something important about the price hike by releasing a day's worth of oil from our strategic reserves and ordering an investigation of the oil companies for possible price fixing. But what will his investigation turn up that he should not already have known? And why haven't the president and his energy secretary had anything to say about the long-term causes and effects of our profligate energy consumption?

Senator Dole, with equal fatuousness, tried to outpander the great panderer. Before he even knew the costs and consequences of his plan, Dole announced that he would work until Memorial Day to get Congress to knock a few cents off the federal gas tax. But that tax reduction will do nothing to address America's need for a long-term conservation strategy. Moreover, it will only add to the budget-balancing woes. And by the time it takes effect, supply and demand will have eased gas prices in the short term anyway.

Dole and Clinton should be working to promote both conservation and energy security, possibly even by increasing gasoline taxes slowly over the next decade. Instead, they treat the electorate as if we are children clamoring only for immediate gratification. This is not what citizens need from their political leaders. This is the kind of politics that has produced so much cynicism and disgust with government.

Dole in the Senate and Clinton with his investigation will now spend days and days doing what is of only momentary—and mostly negative—significance as they compete for attention. Meanwhile, there is still no seven-year budget agreement, no plan to address the Social Security crisis, and no hint of an answer to our energy-consuming foolishness.

Last week, newspaper columnist Charles Krauthammer described the scene this way: "A nation stuffs itself with chocolate, then wakes up in the morning whining that it has a tummy ache. Bob Dole immediately calls for a repeal of the chocolate tax. President Clinton, ever feeling our pain, orders a criminal investigation of the candy man and opens the strategic chocolate reserve.

"Pandering? Hardly. In a nation of crybabies, this is leadership."

Say it ain't so, Joe.

—James W. Skillen, Executive Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”