Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, back from the Fourth of July break, last week delivered a typical harangue on Republican obstructionism and Democratic virtue that included a promise: By week's end, he would show Republicans his proposal to deal with "this speculation thing" that he calls the root cause of $4-a-gallon gasoline. It would attempt "to end speculation on the oil markets."

By week's end Friday, Republicans had seen nothing of Reid's plan because of internal Democratic disagreement on details. But plenty of other Democratic legislative proposals floated around Capitol Hill claiming to resolve the nation's gasoline woes by regulating oil futures trading. The claims are extravagant that these bills would dramatically lower prices at the gas pump, which lawmakers agree is the overriding concern of their constituents.

After consulting a wide variety of experts on both energy and markets, I could find nobody who sees speculation as a major contributor to the oil spike. The problem is massive global demand overpowering a finite supply, aggravated by uncertainty about oil supplies in the Middle East, Nigeria and Venezuela. But the image of evil men on Wall Street manipulating oil prices fits, to borrow the trenchant phrase of the late historian Richard Hofstadter, "the paranoid style" in dealing with the current crisis.

In a fortuitous coincidence, Hofstadter's 1965 book, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," was reissued as a paperback last month. He described the paranoid politician viewing his adversary as "sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, and luxury-loving." As a liberal, Hofstadter was writing about Barry Goldwater's 1964 takeover of the Republican Party but acknowledged that the syndrome "is not necessarily right-wing."

A current embodiment can be found in Rep. Bart Stupak, a former Michigan state trooper, in his 16th year of representing his state's Upper Peninsula. A centrist Democrat, he is what Speaker Sam Rayburn once referred to as a "workhorse" rather than a "showhorse." As chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, he has made "excessive speculation in the energy markets" his signature issue the last three years.

Stupak has introduced bills tilting at the speculative windmill with all manner of tight federal regulation over commodities markets. Testifying before the House Agriculture Committee last Wednesday about this need, he rejected supply and demand as pushing up oil prices.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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