Early on last night, a voter asked about gas prices, leading to a rather heated exchange about a variety of energy-policy measures, including drilling leases. Eventually, moderator Candy Crowley tried to focus on a narrow point:
"Mr. President, could you address ... what the governor said, which is: If your energy policy was working, the price of gasoline would not be $4 a gallon here. Is that true?"
President Obama explained that "world demand's gone up," but I suspect some viewers were still confused about the overarching policy.
We haven't really delved into this in earnest since February, so let's set the record straight, because the relevant details make all the difference.
It's true that when Obama took office, gas cost about $1.81 a gallon, and it's more than double now. And how did gas prices get so low in late 2008 and early 2009? Because there was a global economic catastrophe -- gas was cheap because the economy had fallen off a cliff. As the economy improved, demand went up, and the price of gas started climbing. It's Economics 101.
As Matt Yglesias explained a while back, "It turns out that driving to work, ferrying stuff from the warehouse to the store, hauling containers across the Pacific Ocean, and flying around to meetings all takes oil. If you manage to orchestrate a situation in which millions of people lose their jobs, retail sales plummet, stores close, and economic activity generally grinds to a halt, this frees up a lot of extra oil."
Demand went down, supply went up, so gas prices went down. Then the economy improved, demand went up, supply went down, so gas prices went up. It doesn't mean we're watching a flawed energy policy fail; it means there's a global market that's affected by recessions and recoveries.
But there's another relevant angle here: Romney's the wrong candidate to make the argument in the first place.
Alec MacGillis reported in March on Romney's recent past, when he "liked high gas prices."
Befitting his profile as a moderate Republican who cared about the environment, Governor Romney responded to price spikes by describing them as the natural result of global market pressures and by calling for increases in fuel efficiency -- the same approach that he now derides Obama for taking as president.
At moments, Romney went so far as to make high gas prices out to be a welcome reality for the foreseeable future, one that people needed to learn to live with. When lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, a fellow Republican, called for suspending the state's 23.5 cent gas tax during a price spike in May 2006, Romney rejected the idea, saying it would only further drive up gasoline consumption. "I don't think that now is the time, and I'm not sure there will be the right time, for us to encourage the use of more gasoline," Romney said, according to the Quincy Patriot Ledger's report at the time. "I'm very much in favor of people recognizing that these high gasoline prices are probably here to stay."
Romney's response to high gas prices while governor fit into his broader effort to promote "smart growth" policies in Massachusetts -- a focus that is rare among Republican leaders but that he took up with alacrity.
All things being equal, Romney's much more at odds with the previous version of himself than Obama.