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Analysis

Exactly why gas prices are so high is murky. Why Democrats are freaking out over prices is pretty clear.

A driver returns a fuel nozzle to a gas pump.Bloomberg/Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomber

There is a large bit of debate and confusion about why gas prices are so high these days.

Those who attribute it simply to the war in Ukraine fail to account for the fact that prices were going up before the invasion. Those who say it is simply inflation don’t address the fact that rising gas prices are a leading cause of inflation, not the other way around. And those who want to pin it on President Biden ignore that it is not a uniquely American problem. Everywhere on the planet is seeing higher energy prices, and Europe is about to get much more squeezed than America.

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But amid the lack of clarity as to why gas prices are going up, there are two things we know for sure. First, prices are among the highest they have ever been. Second, Democrats are totally freaking out about what it portends for the midterm elections in eight months.

Indeed, just look at how the conversation is going right now. Republicans are highlighting high prices, blaming Democrats, and suggesting things like the Keystone XL pipeline and additional oil drilling can fix it. Never mind that additional drilling wouldn’t be an overnight fix, and experts have said the Keystone XL pipeline would not affect global prices in a meaningful way.

Democrats, meanwhile, are looking for someone else to blame, and are largely the ones running around trying to suspend state and national gas taxes. Granted, if Democrats did those things, it would likely get pushback from their political base that doesn’t want to make fossil fuel cheaper, and in some cases would be something of a political flip-flop.

Take New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan. Hassan, a first-term Democrat, is facing a competitive reelection battle after winning the seat by just over 1,000 votes six years ago. She was one of the first to call for a suspension of the federal gas tax in early February. (On cue, her three main Republican challengers don’t agree with her on suspending the tax.) It is a flip of sorts given that Hassan actually raised the New Hampshire gas tax during her term as governor.

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But Democratic governors from six states – Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Colorado Governor Jared Polis, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, and Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers – have written a letter calling for the federal gas to be suspended.

Others like Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont and California Governor Gavin Newsom are actively working to suspend their state gas taxes as a way to curb prices at the pump that consumers (also known as voters) may appreciate.

In years earlier, it was Democratic governors pushing gas taxes as a way to pay to repair roads and bridges and create more of a market incentive for their residents to buy electric cars.

One place where the opposite is happening is in Massachusetts. Here it was the Republicans who sought to suspend the commonwealth’s gas tax, but Democrats rejected the proposal in the State House.

Going into midterm elections this November, Democrats appear to be headed for a brutal result. Some of this is just history — the president’s party generally loses seats in a midterm. The current polling showing Republicans poised to do especially well in 2022 shouldn’t calm Democratic nerves either.

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Politically, gas prices matter a lot and have always mattered. While the price of milk isn’t on the side of highways, gas prices are. And while someone might not go to a different grocery store for cheaper goods, most drivers know the station that generally has the cheaper gas and how much it was the last time they filled up. Gas prices, in fact, are how many Americans internalize inflation that has been felt everywhere.

However, the full discussion about what can be done about gas prices, even as it cuts against efforts to curb climate change, has everything to do with the fact that Democrats are trying to make sure the pain at the pump doesn’t lead to too much pain at the polling place.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.