Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Pump gas, curse Clinton

Any day now, I am expecting to hear that the beleagured Republican leaders in Washington have set up a website called Or perhaps he can be retroactively impeached on a new list of charges.

Bill Frist, the lame duck Senate leader, is the latest to play the blame Bill game, seeking to turn back the clock to the '90s as a way to shift responsibility from today's governing party. But as we shall see in a moment, factual reality can make that game very difficult.

On the Today show yesterday, Frist said we wouldn't be having gasoline problems today if President Clinton had decided 10 years ago to permit oil drilling in the Alaskan wildlife refuge. Frist told Katie Couric:

"We passed it last month in the United States Senate. It has overwhelming — maybe you don’t support it — but it has overwhelming support. We passed it in the legislature back in 1996. President Clinton vetoed it. Unbelievable. Passed the House. Pass the Senate. And if President Clinton had not vetoed that, we would have more than a million barrels of oil coming here every single day. That’s more oil than we import from Saudi Arabia right now. It’s a matter supply and demand. Right now we would have increase supply if it had not been vetoed by President Clinton."

(Just a quick digression. You've got to love his little side comment, "maybe you don't support it." Translation: Katie's also to blame, Katie must also be ganging up on the Republicans. In the ensuing exchange with Frist, she had to interject, "I don't have a position.")

Anyway, Frist's problem was that he omitted a few important facts about price and supply:

1. Two years ago, President Bush's federal Energy Department concluded that any price drop triggered by a larger domestic oil supply would be "negligible."
2. And the U.S. Geological Service has concluded that, at the peak of production (probably 20 years after the refuge was even opened), the amount of extracted oil would satisfy roughly one to two percent of Americans' daily consumption.

It's easy to understand why the Republicans are anxious to try the Clinton card. Their best hope for 2006 is to frame the congressional elections as a series of local contests, whereby voters who are fed up with Congress in the abstract will nevertheless re-elect their own individual congressman. But the gas issue (along with Iraq) is threatening to frame this election as a national referendum on the incumbent governing party. Clearly, the idea of throwing $100 at every motorist hasn't gone over well (that's less than two tanks of gas for the SUV-addicted), and that helps to explain Frist's Clinton fixation.

And even GOP strategists are warning that the Republicans better come up with something that can sell. Party pollster David Winston, who deals with both the GOP Congress and the White House, recently argued that the local-contest scenario is dead and gone. I can't link his piece (it's behind a subscription wall), but here are key excerpts:

"(K)keeping things local today is virtually impossible in an age of cable news, web logs and talk radio. When was the last time Rush Limbaugh talked about local issues?....we've got a national campaign environment and probably a permanent one....Democrats have spent the past year trying to ensure that this will be a national election. With issues including the war in Iraq, rising gas prices, immigration, health care, the economy and taxes driving the current right track/wrong track numbers and the president's job approval, they likely will get what they want....the first step toward winning in November for Republicans is to acknowledge the reality of the situation: We are going to play in a national arena this fall, not a local sandlot."

And I question whether "Clinton did it, not us" will resonate as a national message.


The Charlie Wilson for Congress campaign in Ohio has managed to erase one of the more knuckleheaded political acts of the year (see yesterday's post). In a highly competitive congressional district - crucial to the Democrats' national '06 prospects - Wilson needed to persuade Democratic voters to write his name onto the ballot last night so that he could win a crucial party primary and become the nominee. This was because his earlier failure to get a mere 50 verifiable petition signatures had kept him off the ballot.

But he and his organization got their act together and pulled off a tough feat, because voters are generally averse to writing in names. Wilson, a state senator, has been highly touted by the national party, and no wonder: Ohio's sixth district features a conservative-leaning electorate, and in the 2004 presidential race, the voters there chose President Bush over John Kerry by one percentage point.

The seat is now held by a Democrat who is leaving it to run for governor, and Wilson's challenger will be a state House Republican leader. But, now that he's finally on the ballot, he can be expected to invoke the same national issues that GOP pollster Winston mentioned earlier.


Yesterday I griped about the smug insularity of the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner. Today I discover that the editor of the American Journalism Review seems to share that view, and is even arguing that the event should be scrapped entirely.

I also noted yesterday that the New York Times story on the dinner conveniently omitted any mention of Steven Colbert's scalding performance, including his swipes at the Washington press corps for going too easy on Bush. (The Monday article was written by Elizabeth Bumiller, who remarked a few years ago that sometimes, when war fever is high, it's intimidating to ask Bush tough questions at press conferences.)

Well, today I see that the Times has found a way to mention Colbert after all - thanks to the tried and true "second-day story" device. The bloggers have been kicking up a fuss about Colbert, so that gives the Times media writer a chance to report on the fuss about Colbert. As Dana Carvey used to say when he played Church Lady on Saturday Night Live, "How conveeenient!"