It's hard not to enjoy watching Rep. Joe Barton (R-BP) squirm. As you must know by now, the Texas GOPer put a super-sized foot in his mouth at a congressional hearing on Thursday, when he apologized to BP CEO Tony Hayward and said that he was "ashamed" of the Obama administration's effort to push the oil firm into agreeing to set up a $20 billion escrow fund that would pay out compensation claims. Within nanoseconds, Democrats were sending out press releases slamming Barton, the senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. This was great ammo, for the D's pointed out that Barton could become chair of this House committee, which oversees BP actions, should the GOP gain control of the House in the fall elections. The talking point was an obvious one: Do you want a BP apologist to be in charge of investigating and monitoring the oil company's actions in the Gulf and elsewhere?
This was an issue ready-made for the Dems to use in the 2010 congressional elections. (The attack ad virtually writes itself.) The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party arm in charge of House elections, immediately launched Facebook ads and a petition calling on Barton to apologize. At a White House briefing, Vice President Joe Biden and press secretary Robert Gibbs blasted Barton, with Gibbs suggesting other GOPers should ask him to leave the Energy and Commerce Committee. Toward the end of the afternoon, Barton apologized for his apology -- sort of.
That won't -- and shouldn't -- end the matter. Because Barton had not committed a gaffe. With his initial remarks, he had merely shared with the world what he really believed. More important, he had said what other Republicans believe. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a Tea Party darling, derided the account as a "redistribution-of-wealth fund" and "one more gateway for more government control." The Republican Study Committee, a collection of over 115 House conservatives, dubbed the fund a "Chicago-style political shakedown" -- terminology Barton used during his apology to BP. Barton's quasi-retracted remark was no accident; it was an airing of strong partisan and ideological sentiments shared by his GOP comrades. They really see the Obama administration as the evildoers in its face-off with poor, transnational BP. Are they motivated by an infinite love of the marketplace and corporations or driven by a knows-no-bounds hatred of Obama? Ultimately, it doesn't matter, because they end up in the same spot: in sympathy with the biggest despoiler of the environment in U.S. history.
Here's what Jack Kerouac called a "naked lunch" moment: when you see what's really on the tip of the fork. Barton and his colleagues were expressing the pro-corporate perspective long nurtured on the right. Look at how the Heritage Foundation's blog put it: "Joe Barton is Right." Barton, it noted,
is 100% correct. What happened in the White House yesterday was a "shakedown" of Godfather-like proportions. . . . All of this was "negotiated" while Attorney General Eric Holder, who has already threatened BP with criminal prosecution, stood in the corner. And what did BP get in return? A single statement from the President saying he did not want to drive BP into bankruptcy. Of course he doesn't. The mob can't collect from a bankrupt business. . . . Yesterday's White House victim was not BP. It was the rule of law. Just as the Obama administration junked the bankruptcy code last year to protect their union allies, they are doing the exact same thing this time for their environmental ones.
So BP is a "victim," and the Obama mob nailed the company only to "protect" its environmentalist pals -- not to help the people of the Gulf region whose lives have been ruined by BP's recklessness. This is truly an alternative reality -- but one held by a party that is close to gaining control of the House this November.
At the end of the White House daily press briefing on Thursday, I asked Gibbs to go beyond bashing Barton's comments and "speak to the larger theme here of Republican and conservative opposition to this [fund] as yet another Obama socialistic, big-government initiative." Admittedly, this was a softball. But there's a bigger issue than Barton's blunder. Gibbs replied:
It's hard to tell what planet these people live on. It's hard to understand -- it's hard to understand their viewpoint, but it may explain their votes on financial regulation; it explains how they view whether or not the banks ought to be able to write their own rules and play the game the way they played it in -- several years ago that caused our economy to crash. It's understanding how we got an MMS that was handing out drugs in favor of drilling permits. . . . It certainly sends an awful message to any company around the world, particularly one as large as BP, that they can come here, do what they've done to our economy, the environment, and as the vice president so eloquently said, a way of life for so many -- and if you listen to Congressman Barton, Congressman [sic] Bachmann, Congressman [Tom] Price [the chair of the Republican Study Group], you'd think somehow BP was owed a handkerchief and a crying shoulder.
This is a clash of worldviews. After Republican House leaders distanced themselves from Barton -- they didn't want this story to stretch into several days -- the congressman didn't have the guts to stand his ground. But this fundamental divide is not going away. And it would be to the Democrats' political advantage to emphasize it as much as they can before the coming elections. After all, the bottom-line issue in politics is always: Whose side are you on? If the sides are BP or the U.S. government, that's a stark choice.
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