After U.S. Rep. Joe Barton’s craven apology to BP last week, House Republican leadership let it be known that it had threatened to strip Barton of his post as ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
But there’s a real problem with that approach.
Barton’s apology to BP was not a slip of the tongue; the controversy that resulted is not a media-driven tempest in a teapot, like the mini-scandal about Tony Hayward going to a yacht race or the phrase “small people” escaping from the lips of the BP chairman. Nor was Barton’s sentiment that of some rogue congressman.
No, the problem with Barton’s statement is that it honestly expresses core GOP values.
Just the day before his apology, the 115-member Republican Study Committee, led by U.S. Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, issued a statement of its own accusing President Obama of “Chicago-style shakedown politics.” Stuart Varney of Fox Business News said Obama’s action “is Hugo Chavez-like, is it not? To seize a private company’s assets.” Rand Paul has attacked Obama’s criticism of BP as “unAmerican.”
Rush Limbaugh said the U.S. government “may as well be a branch of organized crime the way that it is being conducted and the way it’s doing business, and the way it’s looking out for itself and no one else. … Organized crime. It’s the closest thing I can think to analogize what’s happening here.”
Bill Kristol, on Fox over the weekend, acknowledged BP’s responsibility for the Gulf crisis. “I have no sympathy for BP,” he said. “We have an article in the Weekly Standard this week saying that BP should stand for ‘Beyond Pathetic.’ I think it was the least responsible of the Big Oil companies. It has managed to handle itself pretty poorly even since the disaster let alone before. But it’s not healthy for the country, for the economy as a whole, for the president to bully different companies and different industries and I think it’s not helping us.”
I just find it all amazing. For example, Kristol’s assessment of BP’s performance both pre- and post-disaster is pretty accurate. But if he honestly believes what he says, what would he have Obama do? Allow BP to continue to slow-walk the claims process? Force the shrimpers and motel owners and waitresses and rig workers to hire lawyers to take BP to court and hope that they might get some dribble of compensation a few years from now, after they’ve defaulted on their boat loans or lost their businesses?
“Do not underestimate the emotionalism and the frustration and the anger of people in the Gulf uncertain of their financial future,” Kenneth Feinberg, the man appointed to handle the escrow account, said in interviews this morning. “It’s very pronounced. I witnessed it firsthand last week.”
To be fair, at least a few Republicans get it, especially those close to the Gulf.
“I couldn’t disagree with Joe Barton more. BP doesn’t need an apology, they need to apologize to us,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said over the weekend. U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner of Alabama and Jeff Miller of Florida, both Republicans representing coastal districts, also strongly condemned Barton’s statement.
Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama called Barton’s statement “dumb.”
“I would invite Congressman Barton, if he hasn’t been to the Gulf, and also Congressman Paul or his son, to come down here and see what’s happened,” Shelby said. “We don’t owe BP an apology — they owe the people of the Gulf an apology. And they are solely responsible.”
Shelby went on to claim that Barton’s position is “not mainstream Republican thought.” But I’m sorry, he’s just wrong about that.
Shelby and a few others in his party are smart enough to recognize the political danger in Barton’s statement. Certainly, those Republicans whose districts are directly affected by the spill have been hearing the anguish of their constituents and know that the facts on the groundhave to trump ideology.
But the evidence is strong that overall, Barton’s sentiment permeates the conservative movement, from pundits to politicians. That deference to corporate power is the default position. Even in a catastrophe, this is where their first loyalty lies. The instinct that in this case has driven conservatives to defend BP is the same instinct that has driven Shelby and others to defend Wall Street and the banks in the economic collapse.
In fact, the parallels between the Gulf tragedy and Wall Street’s meltdown are manifold. The conditions that created one disaster created the other as well. In both cases, government regulators were declawed and seduced, greed-driven executives were freed to take big risks, industry hubris created a false sense of confidence and a disaster that we were assured could never happen did indeed happen.
The main difference is that of clarity. Few Americans understand the complexities of high finance; it’s hard to know for sure who is at fault, exactly how it happened and how it should be fixed. But we all understand a pipe that is leaking 60,000, maybe even 100,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. We understand where the vast majority of the responsibility lies, so when Barton, Gingrich, Price and others try to tell us otherwise, we understand them a lot better as well.
We recognize when the mask slips.