An October Surprise at the Pump? | Thatcherites No Longer | Mark Foley’s Money

Prix Fixe—Gas prices are falling, from $3 a gallon in August to a national average today of $2.23 for regular unleaded. Energy experts say the end of the Israel-Lebanon war, a milder than expected hurricane season and declining world oil prices are contributing factors. But the American people aren’t convinced that politics isn’t at play as well.

A recent Gallup poll found that 42 percent of Americans believe the Bush Administration “deliberately manipulated the price of gasoline so that it would decrease before the fall’s election.” White House spokesman Tony Snow recently joked that Bush’s ability to manipulate prices “would give him the kind of magisterial clout unknown to any other human being.”

But the former oil man does have friends in high places. In 2004, Saudi ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan offered to increase oil production by several million barrels a day before the presidential election. This August, oil prices fell 8 percent overnight when brokerage firm Goldman Sachs altered its commodity index—the largest in the nation. Former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson happens to be the Bush administration’s latest Treasury Secretary.

Bush’s approval numbers have roughly mirrored the rise and fall in gas prices. And the number of voters who cite energy prices as the country’s most important problem has fallen by half, from 14 percent in May to 7 percent in September, according to a Pew Research survey. The issue may not be as potent for Democrats as it once was. On the other hand, lingering suspicions that a trick has been played could moot a GOP advantage. “I don’t think it’s going to help Republicans, but it is no longer going to help Democrats either,” says pollster Frank Luntz. In other words, don’t expect the Hummer Vote to decide this election.

Kinder, Gentler Tories—The new leader of Great Britain’s opposition Conservative Party, David Cameron, is a 39-year-old self-described “liberal conservative” who bikes to work, preaches social responsibility, rejects tax cuts and praises same-sex partnerships. At the annual conference of the Conservatives, Cameron invited the only Republican still popular across the Atlantic: John McCain. McCain’s speech came just days after Bill Clinton addressed the Labour Party conference—where Prime Minister Tony Blair, increasingly unpopular within his own party, agreed to pass the torch within a year to his successor, Treasury chief Gordon Brown. “They’ve got the last president of the United States,” Cameron said in his introduction of McCain. “We want the next one.”

There are obvious similarities between the youthful Cameron and the elder McCain. “Both have become pin-ups of . . . ‘the liberal media’ while actually being pretty conservative,” wrote Nick Robinson of the BBC News. “Both now present their parties with a choice—back us to reach out to new voters or bring us down with charges of betrayal.” But their respective roles today couldn’t be more different. While McCain courts the American right, Cameron is trying to move his party left. He’s even borrowed a campaign slogan from the Democrats: “A New Direction.” The strategy seems to be working. Three years before the next scheduled election, the Conservatives lead Labour by nine points in the polls.

Strings Attached—Bizarre and unexpected as the Mark Foley scandal was, its aftermath had all the ingredients of classic Washington damage control. Foley immediately checked into rehab for alcohol abuse after resigning from Congress and two days later claimed to have been molested by a Catholic priest when he was a young teenager (though slightly younger than the 16-year-old pages he seduced via e-mails and IMs).

The House Republican leadership scrambled to head off allegations of a cover-up by falsely blaming Democrats and George Soros for leaking Foley’s correspondence. And GOP candidates in tight election races quickly returned campaign contributions from Foley, just as they did with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Rep. Jim Gerlach donated $1,000 to the Crime Victims of Chester County, Pennsylvania. Rep. Clay Shaw, who represents a district next to Foley’s, gave $2,000 to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Only Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), refused to return the $100,000 Foley had given his committee. An odd move, considering that Reynolds was one of the GOP leaders who learned of Foley’s emails over a year before the Florida Republican resigned.