Republican presidential hopefuls pointing the finger at President Barack Obama over rising gas prices could ultimately stumble in a political tar pit themselves: their own records of hiking gas costs back home.
When it comes to the current and former governors angling for a shot at Obama, adding fuel to the Obama gas attacks risks reopening the books on the decisions they made as state executives. Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee, Jon Huntsman and Mitch Daniels all either increased state gas fees or voiced support for raising state gas taxes, providing Democrats, and possibly their GOP primary opponents, an easy retort when the politics of oil get hotter: You deserve blame, too.
That hasn’t stopped some of those former governors from blaming Obama for rising pump prices this week. Romney said Obama’s policies “have tended to increase the cost of energy,” while Pawlenty accused the president of sitting “on his hands” while he could have been expanding domestic drilling. Huckabee suggested suspending federal taxes on gasoline or “blocking new regulations that would drive up the costs of energy production.”
But Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, enacted a three-cent gas tax increase and a two-cent diesel tax hike in 1999.
Dave Carney, a top New Hampshire GOP consultant, played down the danger of any Republican candidates being seriously blamed for higher gas prices. The bigger danger, he said, is that it becomes fodder for intra-party warfare, an opening for candidates to attack their primary rivals on an issue with great political resonance.
“You will pay a price for everything you’ve done in office,” Carney said.
Huntsman, the former Utah governor and outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China, proposed a gas tax increase in 2008 in order to fund a state stimulus program. Romney raised the Massachusetts fee on gas wholesalers by two-cents per gallon in 2003.
Oil has proved a slippery issue for Romney before. In the run-up to the pivotal Florida primary in 2008, John McCain’s campaign lit into Romney as a flip-flopper on energy policy. “As governor, Mitt Romney effectively raised gas taxes on every single motorist in Massachusetts, and in 2003 said he was open to an increase in the federal gas tax,” a McCain spokeswoman said back then. “At a time of grave national security challenges abroad and real economic uncertainty at home, now is not the time for leaders whose consistency is in question.”
Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said flatly that Romney “didn’t raise the gas tax," arguing that the tax on wholesalers is not passed down to consumers — a point of contention for Romney’s opponents. "The gas tax didn’t change under Romney," Fehrnstrom said.
A spokesman for Horizon PAC, Huntsman’s campaign-in-waiting, did not respond to a request for comment, and a Huckabee spokesman would only point to this week’s statement criticizing the president.
While Daniels is often credited with having sterling fiscal credentials for his stewardship of Indiana, he may come to regret suggesting last year that he’d back a tariff on imported oil. Daniels, who made the suggestion in conjunction with floating support for a Value Added Tax, took a beating from the right for that position.
“Absent some explanation, such as large quantities of crystal meth, this is disqualifying. This is beyond the pale,” Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist told POLITICO at the time.
A Daniels spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former economic advisor to John McCain’s presidential campaign, said past support for gas taxes might not be crippling: “For a governor, it’s not just, did you raise taxes, but what did you do with those taxes? Did you provide better services? … The governors are going to defend the fact that, on balance, people were bettered for their action rather than worsened — and that’s not as true for the president.”
Some will find that an easy argument to make. Pawlenty, for example, only briefly considered reversing a no-tax-increase pledge after the disastrous 2007 collapse of the I-35 bridge that killed 13 people and injured more than 100.
Pawlenty’s short-term pivot on gas taxes — he vetoed all similar proposals, and eventually vetoed this one as well — would have helped the state whittle down a major backlog in road and bridge maintenance that the state legislature had been ignoring.
"After the bridge collapse in August 2007, there was some discussion about a temporary tax reform that would have raised some taxes and cut others, but that didn't go anywhere," explained former Pawlenty deputy chief of staff Brian McClung. "Instead, during the next session the legislature passed an 8.5 cent per gallon gas tax increase that Governor Pawlenty vetoed."
And even though Pawlenty ultimately passed on the gas tax hike, he could still be confronted by his 2007 comment that “I will be moving to consider and put on the table a gas tax increase.”
“Everyone’s record is an impediment,” said Carney, the New Hampshire operative. “And when you raise taxes for any reason — even if it’s for a totally justified reason in your mind and in the minds of voters — seven to 10 years later the recollections become a little hazy.”