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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Gas Tax as a Third Rail

Thomas Friedman’s New York Times op-ed column on the benefits of raising gasoline taxes makes elegant moral and economic sense. Friedman makes a tight case that raising gas prices would (a) reduce our dependency on mid-east oil and (b) actually save consumers money in the long run, especially if linked to a cut in the payroll tax. It would also encourage faster development of hybrid cars and alternative technologies leading to a cleaner environment and help prevent future oil wars.
Friedman is hitting on all cylinders here and he probably has many of his readers believing that a gas tax increase would be a thing of logical beauty. He even writes a compelling script for politicians defending a hike in gas taxes, while under attack from their opponents:

Yes, my opponent is right. I do favor a gasoline tax phased in over 12 months. But let’s get one thing straight: My opponent and I are both for a tax. I just prefer that my taxes go to the U.S. Treasury, and he’s ready to see his go to the Russian, Venezuelan, Saudi and Iranian treasuries. His tax finances people who hate us. Mine would offset some of our payroll taxes, pay down our deficit, strengthen our dollar, stimulate energy efficiency and shore up Social Security. It’s called win-win-win-win-win for America. My opponent’s strategy is sit back, let the market work and watch America lose-lose-lose-lose-lose.”

“If you can’t win that debate, you don’t belong in politics,” argues Friedman. It’s an interesting tactic, making opponents of a gas tax take some responsibility for rising gas prices and revenues going to other nations. But it’s not an argument most candidates would want to try out in an election year. it might work better, say, in the first year of a new congress and a new President. And it’s going to take some big guns to actually get it done.
We do need some political leaders who have the gonads to take up this cause. But it’s a tricky political minefield, and it’s going to require a lot of time and work to win the hearts and minds of voters before the politicians are willing to get on it. Certainly we know that gas price hikes are politically-toxic, as this chart from Polkatz depicting an extremely close relationship between gas prices and presidential approval ratings makes abundantly clear. Voters already get it that a gas price hike is like a tax increase, as far as their wallets are concerned. Getting voters to appreciate that a gas tax hike can be a good deal for consumers when linked to a cut in payroll taxes for working people is a more complicated challenge, but one worth addressing — in ’09.

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