Psaki contradicts Pelosi: Sorry, but we don't support a ban on Russian oil imports

I understand why the GOP is gung ho to see this happen. I don’t understand why any Democrat is, let alone one as influential as the Speaker of the House.

Jen Psaki was asked about that at today’s briefing. If we’re willing to sanction Russia’s central bank, shouldn’t we also be willing to sanction their most valuable industry? If the point is to bring them to their knees economically, why continue to buy oil from them?

Doesn’t that put us in the position of essentially paying for their war, asked Fox’s Jacqui Heinrich?

We’re keeping the oil tap open, Psaki insisted:

Pelosi’s dismissive call to “ban it!” when asked about Russia’s oil is another way in which the western coalition to punish Putin has the feel of a “cancellation” campaign. Major actors become captivated by the effectiveness of their own collective action and rush forward headlong, eager to keep up the momentum and press their advantage. It makes good political sense for a Republican politician to do that in this case since the oil question is a Catch-22 for Biden. If he declines to block imports of Russia’s oil, he’s showing weakness by tossing Putin an economic lifeline. If he agrees to block imports of Russia’s oil, he’s assuring higher gas prices and therefore higher inflation at a moment when inflation is already a burden for Americans.

Heads: The GOP wins. Tails: Biden loses. Whatever the president does, he’s open to an effective political attack.

For Democrats, though, the calculus should be relatively easy. They should keep the Russian oil flowing to hold down the pain at the pump, knowing that rising gas prices and their knock-on effects are almost uniquely poisonous to a party’s political position. Remember this graph from last year?

It’s possible that continuing to import Russian oil will generate a backlash to Democrats at the polls this fall. It’s certain that high gas prices will, potentially to ruinous effect for the in-party. Psaki’s spin thus makes sense from a standpoint of raw electoral self-interest: Faced with already high inflation that’s destined to worsen once the west’s mega-sanctions on Russia begin to bite, the White House will decline to make it even worse by cutting off oil from Russia to boot.

I don’t know what Pelosi is thinking by joining with the GOP to put pressure on Biden, though. Americans may be flush with admiration for Zelensky and Ukraine now, but how will they feel about paying six bucks a gallon this summer once the war has become background noise on the evening news? Noteworthy data from WaPo: “While two-thirds support additional sanctions, just 40 percent say they would support those additional sanctions if it meant higher gas prices. And this, too, is bipartisan, with support for sanctions that lead to hikes in gas prices falling below a majority for both Democrats (49 percent) and Republicans (40 percent).”

We all share, or should share, Pelosi’s instinct to cancel Russia’s economy as comprehensively as possible. But we’ve succeeded in doing that already to a shocking degree; cutting off their oil too, which accounted for around eight percent of U.S. oil imports last year, is like dropping a conventional bomb on a country we’ve already nuked. It could even backfire, sapping Americans’ willingness to keep more severe sanctions on Russia in place as gas prices rise.

Bear in mind too that oil isn’t fungible. The type we get from Russia is important to American industry:

The U.S. buys Russian oil in part to feed refineries that need different grades of crude with a higher sulfur content to make fuel at top capacities. American refineries were designed decades ago to use heavier grades of crude, often with higher levels of sulfur, when domestic supplies were lower. In recent years, Russian crude has filled some of the gap around the world left behind by sanctions on Venezuela and Iran.

Who’s going to fill the gap once Russia is sanctioned as well?

Joe Manchin was asked this afternoon about the prospects of spiraling inflation as the U.S. continues to punish Russia economically. No one in Congress has showed more concern for inflation over the past six months than he has, citing it as a chief reason for refusing to allow new spending in the form of Build Back Better to go forward. Asked about inflation today, though, Manchin shrugged. War is war. He’ll happily pay 10 cents more per gallon to help the people of Ukraine:

Do blue-collar West Virginians agree? I suspect many do not.

The strangest thing about Pelosi taking the other side of the issue from Biden on Russian oil imports is that it could leave him and Senate Dems in a no-win position. If the House passes a bill tomorrow to ban Russian oil, would Schumer put it on the floor in the Senate and force his caucus to take a tough vote? If he did and the bill passed, it would land on Biden’s desk and make his Catch-22 worse. Does he sign it and guarantee further inflation or veto it and draw Republican attacks that he’s soft on Putin? If I were Nancy, I’d be downplaying the idea of a ban rather than egging on her caucus to mobilize behind it so as not to leave Biden holding the bag.

I’ll leave you with this deep thought from today’s briefing when Psaki was asked an obvious follow-up question, whether reopening the Keystone pipeline would ease pressure on gas prices. Sorry, she said, but it would take years for Keystone to come online and have an impact. That’s right, Jen, which is why it should have been approved years ago.