by Philip Wegmann
Until Wednesday, there was a routine at the White House.
The national average for a gallon of gasoline would drop, and the president’s staff would publicly celebrate the dip as more evidence that the decision to tap the strategic petroleum reserve was helping the everyday American. And while gas was not, and is still not, cheap, the downward streak was undeniable. It lasted 99 consecutive days.
But J.D. Vance doesn’t see that as meaningful progress when prices remain high. If anything, the Ohio Republican now says the streak “should be a national scandal.”
“The fact that we are depleting the petroleum reserve of this country, so Joe Biden can claim a victory on gas prices for a midterm election, is the most politically selfish thing an American president has done in recent memory,” Vance told RealClearPolitics.
Rather than release more than 240 million barrels from that emergency supply, first in response to the coronavirus pandemic and then the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Vance has a simpler suggestion for Biden, one ready-made for the campaign trail as he competes with Democrat Tim Ryan for the open Ohio Senate seat: “What Biden should be doing is letting American companies drill for oil, refine oil, and transport oil.”
Vance wants voters to hold Ryan responsible for Biden’s energy policies – to keep in mind, for instance, the White House moratorium on new federal oil and gas leases as they cast their votes in November. The Republican doesn’t frame this as merely an economic issue. He believes it is also emblematic of a larger class divide in America between those who can easily weather changes brought by new climate policies and those who cannot.
“The elites who drive Democratic policy all make too much money to care about inflation. They live in cities where many of them don’t even have cars to begin with,” he argued. “But here in Ohio, most of us need to buy gasoline in order to get to work to do the things that we need to do to live.”
That kind of populist message should resonate in a state that Donald Trump carried by eight percentage points in 2020. But Ohio’s Senate race remains a toss-up, and according to the RealClearPolitics average, Vance leads Ryan by just two points. One reason: Ryan has aggressively courted independent voters, campaigning on how he has split with his own party in Congress, even occasionally siding with Trump, and accusing his opponent – a Yale law school grad, former corporate lawyer and onetime Silicon Valley venture capitalist – of being the actual out-of-touch elitist.
But when Ryan recently told plumbers and steamfitters that it was time to “go all in on natural gas” and that the fossil fuel was “a hell of an opportunity for Eastern Ohio,” Vance pushed back.
“The guy is betting on us being stupid,” the Republican said, insisting that the “thrust” of Ryan’s “public policy career has been trying to ban fossil fuels, but now that he’s running for office in Ohio state-wide, he knows it is unpopular and he’s running away from it.”
The Vance campaign argues that Rep. Ryan, despite his blue-collar rhetoric, is no different than any other liberal progressive. Republicans highlight how the congressman from Youngstown told the Washington Post in 2019 that the federal government should “significantly ramp up oversight and regulation” of the natural gas industry and, if companies didn’t improve their environmental record, ought “to step in and halt fracking operations.” Vance also notes that Ryan supported Biden’s drilling moratorium and opposed legislation to deregulate the permitting process for oil and gas pipelines.
According to Vance, his opponent “totally abandoned” the oil and natural gas industry in the face of increased regulation from the current administration, “but he says he likes natural gas now because he knows that it is politically popular.”
The Ryan campaign argues the exact opposite, and they pointed RCP to the natural gas-fired power plants in his home district, like the one in Lordstown that he said in April would help “knock Vladimir Putin’s legs out from under him.”
Ryan’s team also cite a 2012 letter Ryan sent to then-President Barack Obama encouraging the administration to back the export of liquified natural gas, his support of a gas pipeline in Ohio, and his recent decision to co-sign legislation by Sen. Joe Manchin to streamline the permitting process for new domestic energy projects.
“Once again, San Francisco phony JD Vance is trying to hide the fact that he’s flip-flopped on his support for natural gas by lying about Tim’s long record of fighting like hell for Ohio’s energy industry,” said Ryan campaign spokesman Jordan Fuja, referencing remarks Vance made in 2020 voicing support of natural gas while noting its limitations to take the United States “to a clean energy future.”
While the White House has tried to curb rising energy costs, Biden has also cited higher gas prices as hastening the transition to a future where the country is less reliant on fossil fuels. His administration has pitched electric vehicles as a long-term solution that would insulate American drivers from pain at the pump brought on by geopolitical crisis like the current war in Ukraine. For his part, while running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination in a crowded field that included Joe Biden, Ryan called for banning gas-powered vehicles.
“I hope we don’t have to wait until 2050. The way things are moving – Senator [Bernie] Sanders and I got into this in the debate a little bit. He was like, banning gas cars in 2040, and in my mind, in all honesty, it’s like okay, great, whatever,” Ryan told voters in New Hampshire. “But if we’re waiting for 2040 to get rid of gas vehicles, we’re doing something terribly wrong.”
His Senate campaign has since said that Ryan’s comments were meant to indicate his desire “to go all-in on creating new job opportunities” for Ohio. But Vance counters that Ryan’s call to ban gas vehicles has made the race something of a referendum on the internal combustion engine. He says “people should be able to drive whatever car they want.”
What of the administration promise that an electric vehicle future will bring with it manufacturing jobs? Vance found those “a little bit reminiscent” of the old Obama-era idea that out-of-work coal miners could be taught “to code.” He doesn’t besmirch new computer programming jobs, or new electric vehicle manufacturing for that matter. “But let’s not kid ourselves,” Vance said, “if you create 500 EV jobs but destroy 2,000 gas-powered auto worker jobs, then on net, Ohioans have really suffered.”
The batteries needed to power electric vehicles are so inextricably tied to Chinese lithium and cobalt mining, Vance added, that “unless you really develop a native American economy and all of those things, the investments in the EV industry might help a little bit but, on net, they’re going to make a lot of Ohioans worse off.”
Talk of a clean energy revolution from Democrats is lofty. The results, according to Vance, are disastrous.
“We’re living in the most inflated energy economy in my lifetime, at a time when we have the most aggressive clean energy policy,” he said. “The promise has clearly not met the reality. We’ve seen what these policies lead to – what they lead to is immiseration and theft from the American working class.” The disconnect between promises and results, Vance insisted, was another example of the “massive lifestyle difference from coastal liberals to actual middle-class people in Ohio.”
Vance and Ryan are backed by the champions of their respective parties who, in turn, are equally unpopular with opposite sides of the electorate. While Biden and Ryan appeared together at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new computer chip factory in Ohio earlier this month, the congressman says he is running as “an independent” and has publicly questioned if the president should seek a second term. Meanwhile Vance, once a Trump-skeptic like many conservatives, now welcomes Trump’s endorsement.
The former president praised Vance as an “incredible patriot who will take the fight to Biden and the radical left media every day” before blasting media reports that Republican Senate candidates were keeping him at a distance. Not Vance. That Ohio Republican, Trump told a crowd at a Saturday rally, was “kissing my ass.”
Asked about those choice words from Trump, Vance replied, “Look, I know we had a fun rally, and I think that he did exactly what he needed to do for the perspective of my campaign, which is highlight the fact that Tim Ryan is a lying fraud who pretends he supports Trump’s policies when, in fact, he supports Biden and Nancy Pelosi’s policies.”
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Philip Wegmann is writer for RealClearPolitics.
Photo “Tim Ryan” by Tim Ryan.