National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Politics & Gas Prices

Almost half of Americans, according to the polls, think that the recent fall in oil prices, and gas prices at the pump, is being orchestrated by the big oil companies to improve the changes of otherwise-desperate Republicans at the polls in November.

It is the latest manifestation of sentiment by the public that gas prices are rigged, and not solely the result of market or global security factors.

To evaluate the prospect, ask yourself two questions:

            1. If the big oil companies could manipulate prices to their own financial or political gain, would they?

            2. Can they?

If the answer to the first two questions is “Yes,” then the answer to the third, i.e. “Do they?” becomes strictly a matter of personal faith, cynicism or speculation, as you wish. To be honest, one would have to be an agnostic on such a subject, short of actual hard evidence. But there’s a lot to be said for those who understand ordinary human nature and fail to believe that persons possessed with such power as oil moguls are likely to eschew opportunities to use that power to their own advantage.

My own view is that those who think there is no correlation between elections and gas prices should be invited visit the site on E-Bay where the Brooklyn Bridge up for sale. Just kidding, there is no such site. I think.

What’s more troubling than the thought of oil bosses doing this is that so many American people fall for it, and that it may well impact how they vote at the polls.

There are not one but two ways to freeze the American voter, to prevent him or her from changing the nation’s political course. One is fear, the other complacency. Alas, two of the most profound driving forces of human behavior.

If the “politics of fear” cannot persuade enough voters to stay the course, then complacency is the other option. Lower oil prices, give voters a chance to think that everything’s really OK, and they’ll jump for it. People want little more in life than to be assured everything’s alright and they will vote for it, too. More likely, they’ll feel their vote won’t matter, and they’ll stay home on Election Day.

So, just how resilient is the current, angry mood of the American electorate, a mood that has been uniform across the land, a mood that showing only 25% of potential voters believing that incumbents in Congress are doing a good job and worthy of keeping on?

In Virginia, incumbent Republican Senator George Allen’s political quicksand is surely fueled by this mood, but is now being sealed by compounded new allegations of his racist past piled atop his fatal Aug. 11 “macaca” incident and more recent failure to acknowledge a personal Jewish heritage.

Voters in Virginia will not avoid Allen this November because he’s allegedly a racist so much as they don’t want themselves, or their state, to be perceived in that same way by re-electing him. His tarnished record will now reflect negatively on all those inclined to vote for him. Many of his former supporters don’t want to be tarred by that same stick.

It is fortunate for them that Democrats in that state chose to select a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, wartime hero and former U.S. Secretary of the Navy under a Republican administration as Allen’s opponent. James Webb is quite palatable to many Republican voters in Virginia who may not like the idea any longer of being associated with Allen.

But Allen’s problems compounded by the last seven weeks’ cascading of racially-tainted scandals notwithstanding, other challenges to incumbency across the land are not similarly buoyed by such value-added scandal factors.

Voters tend to love to have scandals, rather than policies, make their decisions for them. Consider that President Clinton became only the second president in the history of the U.S. to actually be impeached, and for what? Issues associated with a sexual tryst. But what about George Bush, who invades a sovereign nation on a completely false pretext, costing countless innocent lives, ruining America’s moral leadership worldwide, neglecting Katrina victims and driving the nation to fiscal ruin? Not a breath of impeachment, even censure. My, my, will future generations, if there are any, be shaking their heads in disbelief at this age.

 So perhaps those lower gas prices do portend good times ahead. Maybe we’ve just overreacted to a temporary problem. Just relax. Forget politics and focus on fantasy football. Don’t vote, or if you do, go easy on all those incumbents who’ve been trying so hard and getting a bum rap. Don’t worry. Those gas prices won’t really begin to climb up again for at least a month or two.