The price of everything, not just driving, is going up in the era of $130-a-barrel oil, but our presidential candidates have a hopelessly thumbless grasp of pocketbook politics.
Their mutual slogan could be "Let them eat abstractions." Barack Obama famously couldn't connect with working-class voters in the primaries, offering them an airy diet of hope and change. John McCain rose on his personal honor, which is why on energy he's fumbling away the GOP's best domestic political opening in years.
For a politician whose forte has never been domestic policy, McCain has a peculiar taste for complex, verging on unworkable, regulatory schemes -- from campaign-finance reform, to comprehensive immigration reform, to a cap-and-trade system limiting carbon emissions.
The attraction for McCain of these plans isn't their intricacies, but their symbolism. Campaign-finance reform demonstrated his incorruptibility; comprehensive immigration reform his belief in an America open to all comers; cap-and-trade his commitment to fight global warming.
These positions were all the more alluring in that they placed McCain in opposition to what he considered the loose ethics, nativism and head-in-the-sand denial of global warming of his own party. They marked him as a bold reformer refusing to compromise himself: Here I stand, I can do no other.
Without this branding, McCain wouldn't have a chance this year. But a gestural politics of personal honor has its limits -- namely that there's very little in it for anyone besides you. McCain's other domestic crusade has been pounding his fellow politicians for giving constituents what they want, but shouldn't get: earmarked spending that isn't justified by the general welfare.
If this is all very admirable, it's not a good fit for the public mood when rising energy prices mean that the average worker's wages are falling. For many families, this is a crisis. Besides a summer holiday from the federal gas tax that would save the average family an estimated $30 this summer, McCain's signature energy initiative -- cap-and-trade -- would increase energy prices.
Live by the gesture, die by the gesture. From there, his position on energy only gets messier. He opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, another position undertaken largely for reasons of self-image -- as the Teddy Roosevelt-style conservationist defending the country's big open spaces.