Gassed Up

Campaign coverage calls out a dumb idea. Eventually.

One thing that struck me about last week’s coverage of Hillary Clinton and John McCain’s proposal to declare a gas tax holiday is how aggressive the press was been in showing the idea’s ridiculousness.

For example, on Friday, NPR’s Steve Inskeep interviewed Scott Horsley, a business correspondent for the network who’s occasionally been covering the McCain campaign from the road, to “check up on [the] plan.” This exchange came after a few minutes of explanation of the plan, such as it is:

Inskeep: So does Barack Obama have reason to call this a gimmick?

Horsley: Yes, in the sense that suspending the gas tax doesn’t do anything to address the long-term economic challenges. There is broad consensus among economists who understand the energy markets that lifting the gas tax during this summer is not a good idea from an economic point of view. Now from a political point of view, it might be a different story.

Inskeep: Well if consumers will only get a small break, if the long-term problems won’t be addressed, what long term effects will there really be?

You can’t hear Inskeep’s tone from reading that last question, but trust me when I say it was sufficiently incredulous. There’s a good reason for that. Journalists, even those desperately trying to play things straight, have had a hard time finding anyone who knows anything about energy policy—or transportation policy, or budget policy, or economic policy—to endorse the idea.

Few headlines put it better than one by my friend Sam Stein at The Huffington Post. After dutifully calling think tanks of every political stripe—and even asking for a referral from Clinton’s campaign—the condemnation was universal: “Expert Support For Gas Tax Holiday Appears Nonexistent.” Catchy, no?

So the press called a spade a spade, and bravo for that. But here’s the thing: McCain actually proposed his gas tax holiday two weeks ago on—har har!—April 15.

Presumably, the idea was just as dumb then as it is now. But if you are hoping to get your campaign news from the cable channels, or by following the campaign press, you could be forgiven for having missed the point.

Local papers pointed out what McCain was up to. “Voodoo, part too” said the Raleigh News & Observer, “more than a whiff of populist pandering” said San Antonio’s Express-News, and “every bit as clueless as his gaffes on Iraq,” judged the Newark Star-Ledger.

But it wasn’t until Clinton came out with a similar plan—and until Obama started attacking it—for the idea to become the whipping boy it now is. Why? Because the Democratic race is where the eyeballs are? Or is it because reporters prefer a story with political conflict over a policy-dissection?

Probably both. Either way, it’s a case in point of how our political press—busy with the fascinating business of tracking the horserace—runs on fumes when it comes to policy.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.