Gas Tax Follies: Obama and Clinton Camps Spar

| Thu May 1, 2008 3:25 PM EDT

On dueling conference calls from the Obama and Clinton campaigns today, the gas tax holiday that has gotten so much play (read: condemnation) in the press was the major topic.

The gas tax holiday would eliminate the 18-cent tax on each gallon of gas over the course of the summer; experts, economists, and editorialists have all pointed out that oil companies can simply add 18 cents to the price of each gallon, making savings for consumers nonexistent or nearly nonexistent. To prevent the oil companies from profiting, Senator Clinton has suggested accompanying the holiday with a tax on the oil companies. Even Clinton backers have admitted that this would simply mean cash would go into one of Exxon's pockets and out the other.

Simply put, the gas tax holiday is a pander to cash-strapped voters who want to hear a presidential candidate sound like he or she cares about their burdens. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe called it a "metaphor for the entire campaign." It's a short-term fix — even if oil companies don't negate the tax cut by raising prices, the estimated savings is under $100 for the summer — which Plouffe claimed would distract Americans from the long-term solutions that will constitute a legitimate energy policy. The whole situation, said Plouffe, is "emblematic of what we need to change."

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Joe Andrew, a former Chairman of the Democratic National Committee who endorsed Hillary Clinton early in the campaign, was on the call announcing that he is switching his support to Barack Obama. After explaining that it is time for Democrats to unify so they can face John McCain, Andrew added, "it's also important to point out when someone is pandering." He highlighted global warming and the energy crisis. "We can't be serious about addressing those things if we're just seeking short-term political gain." Clinton's gas tax holiday was the "straw that broke the camel's back."

The Obama call primed the issue for the Clinton folks. The aides on the Clinton conference call — chief strategist Geoff Garin, communications director Howard Wolfson, and deputy communications director Phil Singer — tried to focus on poll numbers that show Clinton stronger against McCain than Obama in key battlegrounds like Ohio and Florida, and show the economy, Clinton's seeming strong suit, emerging as the central issue of the campaign. Wolfson tried establish the campaign's frame for why Clinton has momentum. "In the two months since Ohio and Texas, Americans have really gotten to see the measure of Senator Clinton. They've gotten to see her with her back up against the wall, and they have seen her under fire," he said. "And they are increasingly coming to the conclusion, we believe, that the strength and fortitude she is displaying in this process is the strength and fortitude they want in a president."

But reporters wanted answers on the gas tax holiday. How, one asked, did the campaign respond to the fact that just about every columnist and economist who has written the on the idea has panned it?

"People are hurting today," said Garin. "Our calculations are for the average driver, it would save $70 and most households have more than one [driver]. For people who rely on their trucks and cars for their work, it would save more. We are seeing in our polling that working people appreciate that Senator Clinton understands the incredible strain" everyday Americans are under. "They like the idea that she is going to provide them with relief."

The response made it clear that the real relief being provided for voters by the tax holiday is tied very closely to the psychological relief that comes with knowing someone powerful cares about them. Put another way, the Clinton campaign realizes that this issue is working on the ground and that the criticism of newspaper columnists isn't penetrating.

The Clinton campaign claimed that there is a class/geographical tinge to the reporters' incredulity on the issue. "If you live in the center of a city, it may not seem like that big a deal," said Garin, referring to the largely Washington- and New York-based press corps, which has access to public transit for their commute. But if you live far away from where you work, or you live in a rural area and your truck is integral to your livelihood, Garin said, 18 cents on the gallon makes a difference.

The Clinton campaign also noted that Clinton wants both long-term and short-term approaches to the energy crisis. She has a plan to reduce emissions standards, invest in energy research, and retrofit homes, factories, and offices. But, added Garin, "people need relief now." You can't tell a working man in Indiana with a two-hour commute that help is coming down the road, when everyone owns a Prius. Thus, the summer-long fix.

But reporters continued to push. Weren't Clinton's claims to economic expertise undercut by the fact that economists from varying backgrounds and ideologies think her gas tax holiday is a silly idea?

To this, Howard Wolfson had a decidedly Bush-esque response. "The presidency requires leadership," he said. "Sometimes the president will do things that the quote-unquote experts will agree with, and sometimes the president will do things that experts quote-unquote don't agree with." The president, he said, hears the experts and then has to decide if he or she will follow their advice. The implication was that this is a case in which the experts need to be ignored.

Sometimes, the panderists overrule the economists.