In his heavily politicized remarks on the BP oil spill last week, President Obama made a point of upbraiding “oil industry lobbyists” for obstructing his efforts to make environmental progress. It was an odd choice of target, coming as it did from the man who, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, was the largest recipient of campaign cash from BP and its political action committees during the 2008 presidential cycle. But Obama’s populist rebuke becomes more explicable when seen for what it is: the opening salvo in the Democrats’ 2010 midterm campaign strategy of attacking BP and its Big Oil brethren and casting Republicans as their unelectable enablers.
Obama pushed ahead with that attack this weekend, assailing Republicans for blocking a bill to “hold oil companies accountable for the disasters they cause.” He was soon echoed by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who took House Energy Committee ranking Republican Joe Barton to task for his now-notorious apology to BP. Barton had earlier apologized for the $20 billion escrow fund for the Gulf oil spill that the company was compelled to create by the White House. Barton’s apology, according to Emanuel, was proof that Republicans were too cozy with the oil industry, allowing it to get away with devastation. Emanuel called Barton’s apology a “political gift,” one that would show voters that Republicans could not be trusted to be in power. Nancy Pelosi also tried to wring some political mileage from Barton’s unmerited contrition. According to the House Speaker, the apology served to demonstrate that Democrats “are trying to rein in Big Oil; the Republicans are not.”
Barton’s apology to BP was indeed stupid – he himself has since apologized for his apology – but it’s unlikely to be the gift that Democrats suggest. For one thing, Barton’s apology hardly elicited cheers from GOP ranks. Leading Republicans like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby were quick to condemn Barton’s embarrassing mea culpa, pointing out that the company responsible for the largest environmental disaster in American history is not owed an apology. Democrats’ claim that Barton’s since-rescinded statement is in any way representative of Republican thinking about BP strains credulity.
Casting the midterm election as a choice between Big Oil-friendly Republicans and watchdog Democrats is also likely to backfire. It simply refocuses attention on the uncomfortable fact that the leading beneficiary of BP funds is the Democratic occupant of the White House.
That’s not the only trouble with turning Barton’s statement and BP generally into a campaign issue. Tone deaf as his apology to BP was, Barton’s suggestion that the $20 billion relief fund amounted to a political “shakedown” is more difficult to dismiss. Republicans have raised reasonable concerns about the compensation fund. Overseen by a government-appointed administrator, it is potentially open to political misuse. There are also outstanding questions about whether the fund’s forced creation is even constitutional. No one would dispute that BP should pay, and pay generously, for the devastation it has wrought in the Gulf. But that does not mean that voters will sanction any and all means by the government to hold a private company to account.