When President Biden proposed a three-month suspension of federal gasoline and diesel taxes on Wednesday, many Republicans rolled their eyes. And many Democrats wondered what took him so long.
Variations on the concept have bounced around from state to state for nearly a year now, with governors leading the way. Ron DeSantis proposed to scrap Florida’s gas tax in November. Gavin Newsom pioneered the innovative idea of handing out debit cards to Californians to offset rising prices. In March, Brian Kemp, in perhaps the most naked political move of all, suspended Georgia’s gas tax until May 31 — just days after its primary.
Four Democratic senators facing tough re-election bids — Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Mark Kelly of Arizona and Raphael Warnock of Georgia — called in February for a halt to the federal gasoline tax. At the time, their political aides were eager to portray Republicans as villains.
That may be precisely what Biden hopes to accomplish now: trick Mitch McConnell, always the useful foil in the Senate, into rejecting his idea so the White House can blame Republicans for opposing economic aid to ordinary Americans. who lack money.
According to my colleagues Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Lydia DePillis, Biden used his Wednesday speech to ask Congress to give Americans “just a little breathing room” by lifting federal taxes – about 18 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24 cents per gallon of diesel – until the end of September, shortly before the fall midterm elections.
“I fully understand that the gas tax exemption alone will not solve the problem,” the president said. “But it will bring families immediate relief.”
McConnell quickly dismissed the president’s call for the tax to be suspended as “silly,” noting that many Senate Democrats were skeptical of the idea. But privately, several Republican strategists have said they fear McConnell is misreading the moment.
Intriguing over a long wait
Politics buffs tend to criticize politically motivated tax relief gimmicks, arguing that they create the wrong kind of incentives.
Climate experts say the government should discourage the use of fossil fuels, not subsidize them. Prices are meant to send a signal to the market, economists add, and playing with them can create unpredictable distortions. In addition, roads and highways are often funded and maintained by gasoline taxes, so the necessary revenue must come from elsewhere. There is no free exit ramp.
But politics is another matter. What is most confusing to many Democratic and Republican strategists is why the White House waited so long to try this particular ploy. A Republican agent said it wasn’t exactly necessary for Nostradamus to understand.
A case study in Virginia
The lessons of not seeing soaring gas and grocery prices as a serious threat to the political fortunes of Democrats should have been learned at home after last year’s landmark election: the governor of Virginia.
In July, when Glenn Youngkin, a former private equity executive and Republican contestant, complained on Twitter that Virginia’s gas tax had risen 136% in recent years, state Democrats mocked his comments calling them “dishonest, false”. , cynical, deceitful, irresponsible and stupid on almost every level.
Youngkin, who defeated Terry McAuliffe in the gubernatorial general election this fall, added that the tax “makes it more expensive for Virginians to go to work, shop and visit loved ones.”
Youngkin then launched a three-month suspension of Virginia’s gasoline tax of 26 cents per gallon, though he’s still arguing with the Democratic-controlled state Senate over the proposed decision.
And he held events at gas stations across the state, highlighting prices that now seem suspiciously low in hindsight.
McAuliffe called “crazy” the various tax cuts proposed by Youngkin, which totaled $3.2 billion.
But it turns out that tax cuts make good policy at a time when gas prices are even higher than they were then. A year ago, the average price of a gallon of gasoline in the United States was $3.07, according to AAA. Today it’s $4.96.
Virginia Democrats now face a tricky dilemma: Do they maintain their opposition to the gas tax suspension in their own state? Or do they reverse course and take Biden’s stance on freezing the federal gas tax? It is a difficult needle to thread.
Youngkin’s former ad designer, Will Ritter of Poolhouse Strategies, voiced the enigma of Democrats in new political campaign slang: a two panel meme of rapper Drake, shared on Twitter.
In the top panel, with the Canadian rapper raising his hand in disdain: “Youngkin suggests gas tax suspension.”
In the bottom panel, showing Drake with a big smile: “Biden suggests gas tax suspension.”
The Tom Leonard Effect
But the most politically effective move, according to Youngkin’s advisers, was his proposal to eliminate the state’s 2.5% grocery tax.
The idea emerged from the early brainstorming sessions of the campaign, as top strategists sought to define the broad themes of the race. They knew that if they focused on local issues and avoided national themes that the McAuliffe campaign was eager to discuss, they would have a chance of overcoming the Democrats’ base advantage of about 10 percentage points in the state. .
To their surprise, an internal poll found Virginia voters were the most responsive to messages about a hypothetical proposal to repeal the food tax, an issue barely on the national radar.
It was a Eureka moment.
Youngkin’s team found a sympathetic grocery store owner, Tom Leonard, and secured his permission to film a commercial at his wood-panelled store in Henrico County, a northwest suburb of Richmond.
It turned out to be the perfect backdrop for the local message that Youngkin, whose net worth has been estimated at nearly $400 million, hoped to project.
Animated graphics superimposed on the scene showed prices on signs, written in Leonard’s folksy font and instantly recognizable to locals, swinging downward – thanks, presumably, to the intervention of the future governor.
Youngkin has used the store as a sound stage time and time again, returning there for his state budget signing ceremony this week, when he hammered Democrats for delaying his tax cut agenda.
In late October, when Barack Obama visited Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond to try to raise McAuliffe’s candidacy, Youngkin held his own rally in a field near Tom Leonard’s store, drawing a large crowd.
That’s when Youngkin’s advisers knew for sure, they said, that the race was most likely theirs.
“You can’t run ads telling me you’re a regular guy who plays hoops, washes dishes and wears fleece, but quietly cultivate support for those who seek to tear down our democracy,” Obama told the audience. in Richmond, referring to Donald Trump and other figures Youngkin kept at bay throughout the campaign.
In the end, Youngkin could do just that – and he did.
What to read
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