Steve Chapman
If there is any issue you can be sure will come up during a presidential election campaign, it's gasoline prices. They are simple, important and plainly visible to anyone who drives. They're the classic pocketbook issue: When prices are low or at least falling, voters somehow feel better than when prices are high or rising.

Lately it's been the latter. During his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, Mitt Romney faulted President Barack Obama because "gasoline prices have doubled" on his watch, while lamenting the plight of a hard-pressed American "watching the gas pump hit $50." Message: You won't have to do that when I'm president.

His line of attack sounds curiously similar to the complaints of Democrats when the last Republican was in office. In 2008, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida upbraided oil company executives, "I'm a mom of three young children who filled up her minivan the other day for $68. Sixty-eight dollars -- that's real money."

Democrats led us to believe they would do better. But Wasserman Shultz, now head of the Democratic National Committee, is just one of many in her party who have been oddly quiet on the subject lately.

The posturing by partisan leaders may look hypocritical, and it is. But it also exposes something even more important: how little the conscious decisions of our elected officials affect this issue they invest with such importance. In this area, they are loath to admit that they are often unimportant and sometimes completely irrelevant.

That has never been more obvious than in the past few years. Democrats assailed President George W. Bush and the oil industry when pump prices soared above $4 a gallon four years ago. Obama was so aggrieved he called for a windfall profits tax to punish oil companies for "price-gouging." Republicans, meanwhile, blamed Democrats for opposing an expansion of oil drilling.

But then, before Obama could even take office, a funny thing happened: Prices plunged off a cliff, bottoming out at a now-incredible national average of $1.69 a gallon. Something else funny happened: No one celebrated or rushed to take credit.

Why not? Because it wasn't energy policy that caused the reduction. It was a recession, compounded by a financial panic. You want to cut gas prices? There's no medicine like an economic collapse.

It was not the cure Republicans had in mind. Remember the chant that erupted repeatedly at their 2008 convention? "Drill, baby, drill!" If we did, Sarah Palin and others assured us, the resulting gusher would slash driving costs.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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