Let's see if primary voters buy Hillary Clinton's line that respect equals pandering, that if you really feel people's pain, you appeal to their ignorance. The recent to-do over Clinton's — and McCain's — proposal for a federal gas tax holiday marked a new low in this already-rock-bottom campaign. George Bush's suggestion that high gas prices mean we should drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) was merely business as usual. Even before the end of Bush's first term, it had become a kind of running joke: Ask this administration a question, any question, about domestic policy and if the answer isn't "cut taxes," it's "open ANWR." Never mind that ANWR oil wouldn't be available until some time after 2015; Bush is just being Bush.
The gas tax holiday is a somewhat different story. Both Clinton and McCain have said that they favor limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Neither is as ideologically driven as Bush. Both know that a summer-long tax holiday — assuming Congress would enact it — would make little or no difference. Federal gas tax accounts for only about 5 percent of the current gasoline price. If a tax holiday made people feel free to drive more, the increase in demand might well push the price right back up to where it would have been without the holiday; the money would just go to OPEC and Big Oil, instead of the federal treasury, from whence it could be dispensed to help repair bridges and roads. But "cut taxes" is always a popular cry, they're both running for office, and one can say that they're just acting like politicians.
Clinton's attack on Obama for not making the proposal a trifecta takes the whole charade a long step further. This isn't just a question of differing perceptions. She knows the tax holiday proposal is bullshit. She knows that whether you're interested in global warming or national energy independence, it's a step in the wrong direction. She knows that even it you're not interested in global warming or national energy independence, it's worthless. She knows that Obama is taking the responsible position. To say that if he really cared about working people, he'd make a hollow appeal to their ignorance is just bizarre.
She probably hopes to further exploit Obama's unfortunate remarks about bitterness driving workers to guns and religion. That was a really dumb statement. It did show a certain insensitivity — and perhaps a certain pandering to the prejudices of rich liberals. But to suggest that talking about bitterness per se shows insensitivity to the plight of working people seems seriously misguided: If working people aren't bitter, they should be: about the growing disparity in wealth between the top tier of society and every one else; about the growing disparity in income between executives and workers; about the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, the piling up of national debt, the failings of the health care system, the war in Iraq, the combination of ideological blindness and crony cupidity that has driven so many of this administration's policies.
Bitterness is in order. Are people also bitter about the rising price of gas or just dismayed? Either way, one can acknowledge the personal impact of high gas prices without talking down to voters, without playing on what you hope is their reflexive short-sightedness, without pretending that a meaningless gesture demonstrates real concern. Both Obama and Clinton had a chance to be presidential about McCain's gas tax proposal. He took it. She didn't.