Democrats find themselves on the defensive over gas prices

When Rep. Mike Levin is back home, the California Democrat tells voters about the three P’s he says are to blame for gas prices topping $6 a gallon: the pandemic, Vladimir Putin and alleged price-gouging by oil companies.

But many of his constituents in Southern California’s 49th District are convinced President Biden and the Democrats he leads are in some measure responsible for an issue that has gained sudden urgency for American voters in an election year.

Take Gloria Languren, 50, who stood unsmiling while finishing putting 3.2 gallons into her car over the weekend, budgeting just enough gas to get to her teaching job at an elementary school in Del Mar, where it’s cheaper to refuel.

“I’m hoping to win the lottery so I can afford a Tesla,” she said, joking about acquiring an electric car. “It’s so hard to know what to do or who to blame.”

The blame game over high fuel prices is in full throttle in Washington and congressional districts across the country as people like Languren decide who deserves the bulk of their anger over the sudden hit to their wallets. A self-described conservative Democrat now leaning Republican because of economic worries, Languren is the kind of voter who will help determine whether Democrats can hang on to their fragile congressional majorities come November.

Meanwhile, Democrats such as Levin — who represents a state with some of the highest gas prices in the country — are struggling to come up with quick fixes or even long-term solutions to the gas price problem, along with record levels of inflation overall. The issue is testing the mantra that Democrats are the party that “delivers.”

Biden has acknowledged the problem, telling Americans in a speech last week, “I know how much it hurts.” In an effort to bring down prices, Biden announced the release of 1 million barrels of oil daily for the next six months from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a move many House Democrats applauded. Biden and other Democrats have repeatedly pointed to an economy that has grown significantly since the pandemic, citing the lowest unemployment rate in recent years.

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“That doesn’t just happen automatically, doesn’t just happen magically,” House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (DN.Y.) said Tuesday. “It happens as a result of presidential leadership and partnership with Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate.”

But over the past several weeks in interviews on Capitol Hill, House Democrats running in swing districts and their aides privately acknowledged such a message is tone-deaf for many voters who are feeling the effects of a higher cost of living.

They also worry that the emotional appeal to Americans about gas prices — with Biden and others saying paying more at the pump is a small sacrifice to show solidarity with Ukrainians fighting Russia’s invasion — may not sustain an increasingly irritable electorate.

“Our challenge is just to speak truthfully to people. We’re not going to pretend that economic pressure from inflation isn’t real,” said Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.). “It is a hard conversation, and it requires a more thoughtful message. What I found is just, be straight with folks and don’t try to spin it or sugarcoat it. Just say, ‘Look, this is a result of an unprecedented global pandemic and a war launched by a madman, and we’ve got to figure a path through it.’”

Recent polls show that Democrats’ messaging so far falling flat. Year Associated Press-NORC poll from March 17 to 21 found that while 55 percent of Americans believe the skyrocketing prices are out of Biden’s control, a majority of independents attributed the rise to the president. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found that Americans were most likely to blame the Biden administration’s economic policies for high gas prices, while 24 percent said they were a result of the war in Ukraine.

Democrats on Capitol Hill are clearly still casting around for answers. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week encouraged her caucus multiple times to brainstorm solutions on lowering oil costs, according to numerous Democrats present during last week’s meeting. Members have suggested Democrats should move quickly on efforts such as pausing the federal gas tax until the end of the year and exploring tax breaks to help ease the burden on lower-income Americans.

Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) wants to prioritize domestic renewable biofuels to help decrease US reliance on foreign oil. She took the lead on a bipartisan letter sent to Biden last week, outlining two pathways to do so through executive order.

Democrats largely agreed that another part of the formula is pinning blame on oil companies when the price of oil decreases to under $100 a barrel. They will get their chance to go on offense Wednesday when executives from six oil companies testify before the House Energy Committee.

“We need to understand from them why in the hell are gas prices not going down when a barrel of oil … [is] going down,” said Craig, who sits on the committee. “If they don’t [explain], then we know exactly who was responsible. It’s oil executives who are more concerned about profits than they are about the American people.”

In a half a dozen interviews in Washington, vulnerable Democrats presented two common strategies they are using when talking to constituents: acknowledging that they feel voters’ pain over the increased prices, and offering solutions, through congressional action or a unilateral move by Biden, such as an executive order

“I do try and listen,” said Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.). “Most people don’t want an explanation of inflation. They know it, and it’s hurting them. Explanations just fall on deaf ears. It almost sounds like you’re making excuses.”

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who is facing an especially tight reelection contest, acknowledged that while some factors remain out of the party’s control when it comes to gas prices, she would much rather “get caught trying to help than sit there and lament the problem when we’re not working on it.”

“There’s nothing I can paper over with people to make them believe things are getting better until the damn price comes down,” she stated.

In California, Levin has tried to sell a more nuanced defense of gas prices by talking about the three P’s.

But his message is being challenged not just by the handful of Republicans running to oppose him but also by many of his constituents. His district—which runs along the coastline from southern Orange County to San Diego County—was long a Republican stronghold until Levin flipped the seat in 2018, in a midterm election fueled by anger at President Donald Trump and Republicans.

Many of those Republicans now point out that with Biden in office, gas prices are higher than when Trump was president.

“Gas was cheaper when he was president,” Joshua Jessler, a 23 year-old apprentice plumber, said as he put on a wet suit to go surfing.

“It’s Biden’s fault, all the way,” said Bobby Ott, 39, an Army veteran working to get a contractor license who had an anti-Biden bumper sticker on his Jeep. “First thing he and his cronies did was to kill the Keystone pipeline. Now they want to blame Putin for the gas prices. Do they think we’re jerks?”

And House Republicans debuted a new slogan earlier this month they hope candidates will deploy on the campaign trail, asking constitute whether they can “afford” more years of Democratic leadership. These attacks frustrate many Democrats, who often struggle to find an equally punchy response.

“It’s awful. I hear a lot of people blaming our president and our governor. People are angry,” said Heather Henry, 35, a real estate agent and fitness club employee who considers herself politically independent. “Politicians are taking sides. One side says lower the gas tax. The other side wants green changes. Nobody wants to work with each other, and voters are caught between.”

Muddling the Democrats’ messaging even further is a renewed cry by Republicans to drill more on public lands as they push Biden to reinstate the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada. Some Democrats agree more drilling could offer a temporary solution, but that argument faces head winds from liberals who believe the Ukraine war and the US ban on Russian oil should hasten a long-overdue transition to renewable energy.

During Tuesday’s weekly House Democratic Caucus meeting, liberals cautiously warned more-moderate colleagues to not go “full-bore ‘Drill, baby, drill,’” asking them to consider pairing such a strategy with long-term solutions relying on renewable energies, according to three people in the room who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

“What is interesting now is there is a very real — in our framing democracy, in other people’s framing, national security — argument for the transition, which I don’t think we ever would have been able to make so clearly,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Monday.

Julia Bodey, 35, who drives a Tesla in Levin’s district, echoed the argument for pivoting to producing domestic energy alternatives.

“Maybe this gas issue will convince people we need to get away from oil,” she said. “It’s such a complicated issue. There is a lot of tension in the community — some people blaming Biden, which I think is unfair. He’s doing a good job, not an A-plus but better than the last guy.”

If Democratic voters stay put, it might be not out of any devotion to Levin but because his two main rivals appear significantly to the right on most issues.

Levin last month sent a questionnaire to constituents asking them to describe the issues of most importance to them. On Saturday he followed up with a tweet assuring the public that he, too, is “feeling pain from high gas prices” and is “committed to focusing on solutions that develop real results.” He linked to his op-ed on a local news website in which he blamed high prices on the three P’s.

Pressed on whether the constituents he speaks with are receptive to his message, Levin said he’s “going to keep telling the truth.”

“Ultimately, I hope that people understand what’s causing the price increase,” he said on Capitol Hill.

Perry reported from Encinitas, Calif. Emily Guskin in Washington contributed to this report.

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