NEW YORK--When Americans went to the polls on Election Day 2004, nearly 51 percent pulled the lever, punched a chad or touched a screen for George W. Bush. Only 32 percent of the electorate would do the same today. What changed the minds of 23 million people?
It can't be Iraq. Nothing, after all, has changed. At the beginning of November 2004, we had been there for nearly two years. The administration, having scoured the country for weapons of mass destruction, came up empty-handed and called off the search. It isn't as if the tide of battle shifted between 2004 and today. We were losing, and had been losing, since the beginning. Iraqi resistance fighters had already slaughtered more than 1,200 American soldiers. The carnage has claimed another 1,200 since then; it's a grim but steady rate.
It can't be the economy. True, it sucks, but it's no suckier than it was on Election Day 2004. Bush had already added a staggering $2.5 trillion to the national debt. As is the case for Iraq war casualties, he has continued to dig us deeper ever since--but at no faster a rate.
Bush's aborted plan to privatize/eliminate Social Security attempted to trade on the support he'd acquired from terrorized Americans after 9/11. His Gallup poll approval rating dropped from 57 percent after his 2005 State of the Union Address, where he announced his scheme, to 48 percent in April, three months later. By then, however, the market of public opinion had factored in the effect of the Social Security debacle, which was resolved when Congress refused to go along. Something else has to explain the continuing plunge toward Watergate-era Nixondom.
It isn't the torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the torture flights of people they kidnapped so they could be tortured in Syria and Uzbekistan, or the Valerie Plame CIA leak investigation. Americans who care about those things didn't vote for Bush in the first place. There can only be one explanation, one that has bedeviled countless politicians before Bush: gas prices.
High gas prices freak us out, not necessarily because they're objectively too high--we Americans still pay a lot less than they do in Europe--but because we've come to think of gasoline as a fairly fixed expense. The average American household consumes 26 gallons of gas each week. When the average weekly gas bill doubles to $83.20 in a couple of years, it's a pinch for the well-off and a budget-buster for the rest of us. And if there's anything worse than paying more at the pump, it's seeing that our leaders don't get it--what the heck were Congressional Republicans thinking when they floated their $100 gas tax rebate? That's two fill-ups, guys.
Voters are taking out their anger on Bush, but who's to blame? Not us, says the White House, pointing at the developing world. "Demand exceeds supply," chief of staff Josh Bolten says, pointing at China and India for sucking up more crude. It's the Democrats' fault, say Republicans, for not letting them drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. As usual, Democrats don't have much to say at all.
When in doubt, ask the experts. Red Cavaney, president of the industry trade group American Petroleum Institute--not left-leaning types--puts the blame squarely on the invasion of Iraq, where unrest and violence has reduced production to less than they were under Saddam in the world's second-largest supplier. Traders of oil futures fix the price per barrel based on their expectations of political stability, especially in the world's largest oil-producing nations. And they don't like what they see in Iraq. "As soon as you can stabilize the civil situation," says Cavaney, "[Iraq will] significantly be able to ramp up production. But it would take years."
The chart of the crucial "light sweet crude oil" futures index reads like a barometer of political tension in energy-producing hotspots. Oil, hovering around $27 a barrel in 2001, spiked to $38 when the United States went to war against Afghanistan--a potential oil pipeline route and neighbor to several large producers. It jumped from $33 to $40 in February 2003, just before the U.S. attack against Iraq. Insurgents have blown up pipelines and refineries there ever since, causing a steady climb to $76.
Adding to the high cost of crude oil, says former Louisiana senator and oil company lobbyist Bennett Johnston, is the Bush Administration's "saber rattling" against Iran. "We'd see gasoline prices of $5 or $6; crude oil above $100 if we bomb Iran," he predicts.
So voters are right. If Bush wants to bring down oil prices, he can. All he has to do is stop threatening war, and bring home the troops from Iraq.
Ted Rall is the editor of Attitude 3: The New Subversive Online Cartoonists, a new anthology of Web cartoons.