Meadville Tribune

September 22, 2006

COLUMN: Falling gas prices good news for Republicans

By Ronnie Ellis

FRANKFORT — A devout Republican in southern Kentucky called me this week, as always wise in his political observations and humorous in delivering them.

“Oh, isn’t it just a wonderful time for gasoline prices to be falling?” asked my Republican friend, almost guffawing. “Soon, I think you’ll see gas prices below $2 a gallon – and they might stay that way through the election.”

That’s good news for Republicans of course. Democrats hoping to regain a majority at least in the U.S. House have been hitting hard on jobs, gasoline prices, health care and the economy in general in their campaign advertising. But there is polling which suggests things might be improving a bit for Republicans after a very dreary summer.

A New York Times/CBS poll released this week found 36 percent of respondents think the economy is getting worse, while only 17 percent think it is improving. That may not sound like good news for the party in power, but the numbers are improved from July.

Data indicate productivity is up and overall income is up, but consumers – and the voters who decide elections – don’t read those numbers. But they see the cost at the pump, and those falling prices are easy to read – even if they’re likely to be short-lived.

Democrats would be wise to talk about another aspect of the economy, one about which voters generally aren’t conversant but probably understand intuitively. Productivity is up in this country. Workers are producing more and doing it more efficiently. But while investors and management have seen significant increases in income, front line workers haven’t.

The median hourly wage for workers actually declined in the past three years at the same time corporate profits grew to represent the highest percentage of the gross domestic product in 40 years, according to economists quoted in the New York Times last month. Wages are stagnant or declining at the same time workers pay more for health insurance or see benefits reduced. Other costs have increased, too, including the cost of sending children to college.

Average income has actually gone up. But most of the gain has been at the upper income ranges. Those increases push up the average, but the worker at the lower levels of income isn’t seeing the gains in his paycheck.

More and more voters think President George W. Bush has mishandled the economy and worry about their economic future. Democrats point out Bush’s tax cuts went mainly to those at the top of the income scale who are doing best in this economy. There is a growing sense the electorate is in an angry mood and ready to throw at least some of the bums out. It ought to be a banner Democrat year.

So why is my Republican friend in such a good mood these days?

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort, Ky.