Where is the gas price rage?

Pain at the pump is rising again, but so far, it's not a political issue. We've learned how to live with it

Published September 14, 2012 5:30PM (EDT)

A mystery! Consumer prices took a big jump in August -- by the most in three years -- primarily as a result of sharply higher gas prices. In a normal campaign year -- say, 2008 -- that kind of rise would be happening at exactly the wrong time for the incumbent resident of the White House. You would be expecting the challenger to be hammering  on it every single day and you'd expect drivers to be upset.

And certainly, if you look around, you can find Republican politicians bashing Obama for spiking gas prices. Nor has Romney been shy to take the president to task, although this particular week his attention seems to be elsewhere.

But what's interesting is that in contrast to the summer of 2008, when John McCain got real traction on the issue of gas prices, right now, the issue of energy prices just doesn't seem politically potent. Back in 2008, before the imploding economy crushed the price of oil, the sound of "Drill, baby, drill" cheers echoed across the country.

Of course, there's still time for gas prices to become an issue -- oil prices are rising this week in response to turmoil in the Mideast and the Federal Reserve's decision to engage in aggressive monetary stimulus. But for now, the mystery remains: Why aren't people more upset?

Three reasons:

1) We're used to it. When prices accelerated in 2007 and 2008, American drivers were in a state of shock at how much it cost to fill up their tanks. But the current rise in prices is just taking us back to territory we've already seen two or three times. Prices would have to rise considerably to instill that same sense of anxiety.

2) We're driving more fuel-efficient cars. Higher fuel-economy standards and more price-conscious drivers have made a difference. The average fuel economy of new cars sold in the U.S. has risen 20 percent in the last five years.

3) We're driving less. When adjusted for population growth, Americans are driving around the same miles per year as they were in 1995 -- and the amount we drive has been in steady decline for the last seven years.

Mystery solved. We've adapted.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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2012 Elections Gas Prices