In a Washington riven by discord, it can seem like a throwback to a gentler time.
“I’m proud to stand with my Republican and Democrat colleagues” to send help to Ukraine, Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the US House of Representatives’ foreign affairs committee, said this week.
But even as they express solidarity with Joe Biden’s stance on Russia with one hand, Republicans are launching partisan attacks against the president with the other. The party has, critics say, seized on soaring US gas prices to exploit the tragedy in Ukraine for its own political benefit.
Since war broke out last month Republicans have honed a message that America achieved “energy independence” under Donald Trump only for it to be squandered by Biden, whose preoccupation with the climate crisis hurt domestic production, drove fuel prices up and strengthened oil-rich rivals such as Russia.
The argument was amplified this week when gas prices hit at a record average of $4.17 per gallon and Biden announced a ban on US imports of Russian oil. He warned that while the move would hurt Vladimir Putin, “there will be a cost as well here in the United States”, and anticipated criticism by branding it “Putin’s price hike”.
Chuck Schumer, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, attempted to cast the issue as transcending party politics. “For many in our caucus, and I think on the other side, it’s a moral issue,” he said. “You don’t want to fuel the Russian war effort.”
But the era when wars meant unity governments and a shared understanding that “politics stops at the water’s edge” is over. Republicans backed Biden’s ban on Russian oil imports but simultaneously went on an offensive that effectively absolved Putin of blame.
Kevin McCarthy, the Republican minority leader in the House, told a press conference: “These aren’t Putin prices. They’re President Biden’s prices.”
Mike Pence, the former vice-president, told the Fox Business channel: “In the four years of the Trump-Pence administration, we achieved energy independence for the first time in 70 years.”
“We were a net exporter of energy. But from very early on, with killing the Keystone pipeline, taking federal lands off the list for exploration, sidelining leases for oil and natural gas – once again, before Ukraine ever happened, we saw rising gasoline prices.”
Factcheckers have pointed out that the main cause of increasing gas prices over the past year is disruptions to global supply and demand following the coronavirus pandemic. Only a 10th of the Keystone XL pipeline was complete when Biden cancelled it and it was not likely to become operational until 2023 at the earliest.
The Politifact website found that domestic oil production in Biden’s first year was on par with 2020 and higher than in three of the four years that Trump was president. The White House has also pointed out that 9,000 approved drilling permits are not being used. But none of this has prevented Republicans fixating on the issue in ways that Democrats find deeply disingenuous.
Kurt Bardella, an adviser to the Democratic National Committee, said: “It just goes to show that there are no lengths to which Republicans won’t stoop to try to score political points, in this case using the unthinkable and tragic situation that the Ukrainian people find themselves in.
“To try to exploit that and use it to effectively lie and mislead the American people about conditions here at home is an unconscionable act of political cowardice.”
He added that Republicans, in thrall to “big oil”, have spent the past two decades opposing the very measures that would have made America less dependent on foreign oil and fossil fuels in general. Green technology would have shielded the US from the effects of the Ukraine crisis on global markets.
Bardella, a former senior adviser for Republicans on the House oversight committee, added: “Republicans were so vocal about how the Biden administration needed to do sanctions on Russian oil and then they start attacking him. You can’t win because everything that they do is basically an illustration of how they operate in bad faith.”
“Joe Biden could do every single thing that the Republican party wants and they would still attack him at the end of the day. Republicans just seem to operate in a purely craven political dynamic. It’s irresponsible and downright un-American, and it’s exactly what they would have said if Democrats had done this in the wake of 9/11 or in the run up to the war on terror.”
Opinion polls suggest that Biden, like other western leaders, has received a boost from his response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But inflation is likely to keep rising and prove potent in November’s midterm elections. The National Republican Congressional Committee has reportedly released attack ads against 10 House Democrats over gas prices.
Ed Rogers, a political consultant and veteran of the Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush administrations, said: “‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ Biden is going to own whatever the economy is come November. Republicans don’t have to do anything to make that happen. People feel it for themselves, they observe for themselves.
“You don’t have to remind people too much of gas prices and overall inflation is a big macro political issue. Doing well as an incumbent is all about peace and prosperity, and prosperity is being eroded by inflation, with gas prices being a focal point.”
A messaging battle is under way with the White House seeking to tie Putin to the price rise. But Rogers said: “Republicans have a bumper sticker. Democrats have an essay. Just see how that goes.”
Democratic strategists are aware that the issue could weigh heavily on midterm voters. Bob Shrum acknowledged: “The facts don’t matter much here. If gas prices are really high, that becomes a problem for Democrats in the midterms because they’re in office. It’s just a natural tendency to blame someone under those circumstances.”
But he added: “It’s preposterous to think this is Biden’s fault. He hasn’t done anything that would account for high gas prices at this point. It’s the Russians’ fault but the Republicans want to ban Russian oil and then blame Biden for the shortfall in supplies and therefore the rise in prices. It’s cynical, obvious and opportunistic.”
There are of course legitimate policy debates in wartime and no one suggests that a president is beyond criticism. Some Republican senators, for example, have urged Biden to accept Poland’s offer of MiG-29 fighter jets to be transferred to Ukraine. Tom Cotton said: “If we continue to blink every time Vladimir Putin says ‘boo’ it’s not going to stop in Ukraine.”
But Republicans – and the conservative Fox News channel – have made gas prices and energy production their loudest argument. It is a convenient way to deflect attention from their own complicated relationship with Russia, which is not confined to Trump’s longstanding admiration for Putin and recent comments praising him as “smart” and “savvy”.
This week Congressman Thomas Massie – one of three House Republicans who voted against a recent resolution supporting Ukraine – amplified a false conspiracy theory about US biological weapons labs operating in Ukraine. His colleague Madison Cawthorn was caught on video calling Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy a “thug” whose government is “pushing woke ideologies”.
The hypocrisy is a sign of how the party – and Washington – have changed over the past decade, added Shrum, director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California Dornsife. “There was unity for a period of time after 9/11,” he said. “But if you go back to even Syria under Barack Obama, they were playing this same kind of game.”