Talk of the Town - Desperate measures July 01 2000
It's early but Gore sounds worried
Whatever you make of his halting, psycho-kindergarten-teacher speech pattern, Al ... Gore ... is ... sud-den-ly ... sound-ing ... real-ly ... des-per-ate. And it's a long way to November. Trailing George W. Bush by 8 to 12 points in national opinion polls, Gore has tried to reinvigorate his listless campaign with a pair of reckless initiatives, attacking big oil companies for higher gas prices and unveiling a massive new federal retirement program.
Gore was out in front in the shrill war of words against oil companies, accusing them of "price gouging" and making what he dubbed "enormous and unreasonable profits." He applauded a Federal Trade Commission investigation of gasoline prices in the Midwest. Through surrogates, he even attempted — absurdly — to link Governor Bush, a former oilman, to surging gas prices.
It was just the sort of response we've come to expect from Gore and his disgraced boss. With these two, it seems no legitimate enterprise in America is safe from demagogic accusations when there is political hay to be made. They think nothing of trying to demonize individual corporations or entire industries, from Microsoft to pharmaceutical firms to HMOs to gun makers.
In this, Gore and Clinton aren't friends of the market system; they are its enemies. And while they claim the political center, there is nothing centrist about always blaming business first. They may win a few fleeting political points, but we all lose when they feed a cancer of cynicism, suspicion and even hatred toward American business and free enterprise.
Gore's twisted petro-logic doesn't begin to add up. As Ohio University economics Professor Richard Vedder told me, "If the oil companies could have gotten rich by colluding to double gasoline prices, they would have done so a long time ago. I suspect Al Gore's role in raising the federal gas tax in 1993 and his attempts to raise it even more have had more impact on raising gasoline prices than any evil collusion on the part of the oil companies."
Indeed, the folks making out like bandits at the gas pump are politicians, not oil company stockholders. When you pay $1.42 for a gallon of gas, for example, 42 cents — about 30 percent — goes to federal, state and local taxes. By contrast, Chevron's U.S. profits over the last eight years have averaged 2 to 3 cents per gallon.
So what's fueling price spikes in the Midwest? A recent Congressional Research Service study attributed 25 cents of the jump to regional pipeline disruptions and another 25 cents to new federal regulations requiring cleaner-burning fuel in cities such as Chicago and Milwaukee. The math wizards at the EPA had earlier figured the new stuff would cost 3 to 8 cents more per gallon, a range Gore and the White House continue to cling to despite contrary fact.
At the same time, as part of his decidedly vapid but determinedly alliterative "Prosperity and Progress Tour," Gore uncorked a vast new entitlement program called "Retirement Savings Plus." Eager to grab the Social Security spotlight from Bush, Gore announced plans to give lower-income couples $3,000 a year toward private retirement accounts via a "refundable tax credit." (Families making more than $30,000 would get less; those making over $100,000 would get nothing.)
In his, umm, creative use of language, Gore clearly has learned at the feet of the master. But, no matter how he tries to dress it up, camouflage it or otherwise obscure the truth, his "tax credit" is nothing more than a handout, his plan nothing less than a national vote-buying scheme carried out in broad daylight.
Ironically, Gore is a big fan of so-called campaign finance reform. He and his ideological buddies are determined to place new limits on the rights of private citizens to give money to candidates. They stay up nights fretting that voters' giving may buy the votes of politicians. In March, Gore even proposed total public funding of campaigns.
With "Retirement Savings Plus," however, Gore is turning the campaign finance story upside down — and trying to buy the support of some voters with the tax dollars of others. I'm not holding my breath, but that's the type of bald-faced corruption that really ought to be reformed out of the system.
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