Whenever gas prices spike, an all-out war emerges between parties emerges to control the messaging. The most recent spike in prices has been cited as a reason President Obama's poll numbers took a recent dip, and for good reason: Gas prices haven't been this high since early to mid 2008.
But if you go back a bit farther, to 2006 and 2007, when they were lower and when the economy was still healthy, you find attacks from Democrats blaming Bush for high gas prices. Some insinuated that the Bush administration had colluded with oil companies to keep gas prices high, and as they campaigned to take the House and Senate away from the Republicans the Democrats claimed that they could bring down gas prices with a series of reforms.
The Democrats got their wish. They took control of the House and Senate, and added the White House to that list a couple years later. After blaming Republicans for inaction, the Democrats passed some of the legislation they earlier claimed would help with gas prices. This is what Nancy Pelosi had to say on the subject just a few months after taking control in the House:
“Years of the Bush Administration’s policies that have favored Big Oil over the consumers have resulted in record dependence on foreign oil, leaving American families and businesses to pay even higher prices.
This Congress, under the Democratic leadership, is working to make up for years of inaction, taking America in a new direction that helps bring down the cost of gas and promotes energy independence. Energy independence is essential to reducing the price at the pump.
In the first 100 hours of the new Congress, the House passed legislation to roll back $14 billion in subsidies for Big Oil, when Big Oil was already enjoying record profits. Our proposal reinvests that money at home in clean alternative fuels, renewable energy, and energy efficiency."
An amended form of the legislation Pelosi was talking about, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, was signed into law later that year. It included training for so called "green collar jobs", increased spending on energy related research and development, an increase in production of biofuels, and an increase in fuel economy standards on new cars sold, among other things.
Then, after Obama moved into the White House, the Democrats passed a couple other major pieces of energy related legislation. Chief among them the Stimulus, or American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which contained tens of billions directed at energy infrastructure, more efficient government buildings, tax incentives for energy efficiency, public transit and more research and development. A few months after that, they spent another couple billion dollars to extend the 'Cash for Clunkers' program that subsidized people who traded in less gas efficient automobiles for more economic vehicles.
Having managed to pass a majority of their energy related legislative priorities, over the course of five years or so since Pelosi and Reid took control of the House and Senate, now it's the Democrats who are on the defensive. Gas prices are almost to the peak that they reached back in the summer of 2008, and Republicans get their turn to blame the Democrats.
Really though, gas prices are a manifestation of global oil prices. When the Democrats insinuated that they could lower gas prices through higher fuel efficiency standards, research and development, increased biofuel production and other ideas, they weren't really being honest. They also conveniently leave out that those sorts of reforms may well pay off, but many years on down the line, when they deflect Republican attempts to expand oil drilling by saying that it would be years before new areas would even begin producing oil.
This excerpt from a White House infographic shows all of the different metrics by which the Obama administration is couching the higher energy prices, stressing gains made in fuel efficiency and the generation of renewable electricity as a way to lessen pain at the pump.
The facts are much less exciting than either party would have you believe. The Republicans omit that there are great expanses of already open land that oil companies could be drilling on that aren't yet being developed, and giving the oil companies far more might speed their development up some, but not nearly enough to effect global oil prices enough to make more than a small dent in gas prices. The Democrats painted a picture where their plans would bring down gas prices and move us along to cleaner and cheaper technology, but battery tech just plain isn't there yet. The relative failure of the Chevy Volt, even with the gigantic tax write offs one gets by purchasing one, is a perfect illustration of this. It's a brilliant piece of engineering, but still far too expensive for mass market adoption.
Polls show the American people generally have it right on this issue. We should be expanding energy generation at home, as long as we raise the safety standards. We also should be sinking more money into clean energy research, so the tipping point where hybrid cars, solar electricity and other technologies become cheaper comes sooner. In the mean time, we should continue looking for ways to make coal, natural gas and nuclear energy safer and cleaner. But when either party tries to pin oil prices on the other, all they're really doing is wrapping their energy agenda in propaganda meant to play with our emotions.
Neither could raise oil production enough to keep up with the growth of demand, largely in growing economies like China and India, and the only reason gas prices went down in later 2008 was because the economy started tanking and that global demand went down. That demand is now coming back up, and until game changing technologies come to market (or, heaven forbid, another recession), higher and higher gas prices are going to be a fact of life.
So when politicians, from anywhere on the political spectrum, try to convince you that high gas prices are the fault of their opponents, or that their ideas would bring gas prices down anytime soon, you can treat it like most of the other garbage those people send you in the mail and throw it in the trash... or hopefully in your recycle bin.