The gaseous John Kerry

Posted: May 20, 2004 12:00 AM

    Did the Bush tax cuts cause the Chinese economy to grow? John Kerry must think they did if he really believes, as he says every day on the campaign trail, that rising gas prices are President Bush's fault. Who knew the trans-oceanic power of "tax cuts for the rich"?
   Surging world demand in a recovering global economy is what has driven up gas prices, which respond to the mundane forces of supply and demand. The Massachusetts senator knows this, but pretends instead that the international oil market is controlled by Bush the way the full-service attendant controls the pump at your local gas station. Nothing is so unedifying as watching someone feign economic ignorance for the benefit of voters genuinely ignorant of basic economics. But this is the Kerry play on gas.

    Kerry complains that Bush hasn't done enough to "jawbone" the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and Saudi Arabia into lowering prices. But jawboning is futile. We can ask the Saudis over and over to lower prices, we can even say "pretty please," and it will accomplish nothing. The Saudis will do what they have always done -- manipulate the market to try to maximize their own profits. Oil expert Jerry Taylor, of the Cato Institute, compares the idea of jawboning to asking the clerk at your grocery store to lower the price of produce: You can ask, but it's not going to get you anywhere.

    The Kerry jawboning critique isn't even consistent. When Bob Woodward's new book, "Plan of Attack," was released, Kerry jumped on a paragraph in which Saudi diplomat Prince Bandar loosely talked of lowering prices to keep the U.S. economy roaring during an election year. Kerry immediately criticized what he said was "a secret deal" between Bush and the Saudis. Never mind that Woodward reported no such secret deal. But what if there were a secret deal? Wouldn't this be exactly the sort of jawboning Kerry calls for now?

    The fact is that OPEC has increased supply slightly throughout the past few years. It's just that demand is outpacing supply. In the United States, a recovering economy has meant that daily demand has increased by 0.3 million barrels since 2001. This is nothing compared with the demand surge in China, where demand has increased by 1.2 million barrels a day during the same period. Perhaps Kerry will begin attacking Chinese President Hu Jintao next.

    The candidate can't be bothered with something as boring as world market forces when there are demagogic points to be scored. "Those aren't Exxon prices we see, ladies and gentlemen," Kerry tells audiences. "Those are Halliburton prices." Halliburton, of course, is the all-purpose Democratic bogeyman. It has about as much to do with the spiking gas prices as Walt Disney Co.

    If Kerry were consistent -- a seemingly unattainable aspiration -- he would welcome the increased gas prices. He has throughout his career advocated higher gas taxes, precisely to exact more economic pain from Americans at the pump to force them to drive less and buy smaller cars. Now, the market is doing his work for him, and he's complaining and pointing fingers at Bush. Kerry's surrogates have been calling on Bush to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the several hundred million barrels the United States keeps on hand in case of a catastrophic disruption in oil supply. In the past, Kerry has opposed trying to use the reserve to tamp down gas prices on the margins, but that was before his new iteration as a pretend economic ignoramus.

    Bush brought some of this demagoguery on himself by criticizing Bill Clinton for not jawboning OPEC enough when gas prices increased in the summer of 2000. He can take comfort in the fact that gas prices usually decline in the fall, when Americans drive less. Then Kerry, who has suspended his belief in the market, will have to attribute the drop to the bold leadership of Bush, with an assist, of course, from Halliburton.