For the first time in decades, ideology is becoming a political advantage for Democrats. Thank Joe Barton.
Democrats have won plenty of elections over the last 60 years. But they've won them with programs and pragmatism. Ideology has never helped them. Liberal has been a dirty word; conservative has been a boast. Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, and George W. Bush had clear belief systems. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama didn't.
Barton, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, may have changed that. Last week, BP chief executive Tony Hayward appeared before the committee's oversight panel to discuss BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. In his opening remarks, Barton apologized to Hayward for the White House pressure under which BP had agreed to set aside $20 billion to pay for the damage:
I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday. I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown. … I do not want to live in a country where, any time a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong, is subject to some sort of political pressure that, again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown. So I apologize.
The beauty of Barton's speech, as a weapon of mass self-destruction, is that it wasn't off message. It was standard conservative rhetoric: Private sector good, government bad. But the context was all wrong. When the private sector is dumping millions of gallons of oil into U.S. waters and destroying the coastal economy, government-bashing looks insane. Events can break ideologies, just as facts can break theories. If you push your ideology in the wrong context, it can shatter.
Usually, when Republicans suck up to industry, Democrats say it's about money. In their first attacks on Barton, Democrats tried that tack, citing his campaign contributions from oil companies. But by the weekend, they had realized that it was better to accuse him of sincerity. In an interview on This Week, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel used the word philosophy seven times to describe Barton's speech as a distillation of the Republican mindset. "They think the government is the problem," said Emanuel.
Obama has flirted with this line of attack before. Republicans "said no to protecting patients from insurance companies and consumers from big banks," the president charged in a speech three weeks ago. "If you're a Wall Street bank or an insurance company or an oil company, you pretty much get to play by your own rules, regardless of the consequences for everybody else." But Obama didn't drag BP's name into the debate over corporate power. Barton did that for him.
With BP as the debate's new centerpiece, Democrats can arrange other legislative battles around it to create a referendum on enforcing corporate responsibility. Emanuel listed several examples:
In the case of General Motors, the prior administration wrote a check without asking for any conditions of change. We said, without a check from the American people, get yourself right. You've got to make fundamental change. … In the case of BP and their $20 billion, in the case WellPoint and the way they were raising insurance premiums, we've jawboned them to do what's right. … Some members of the Republican leadership think that we don't need any reforms on Wall Street. Now that they've gotten back some of their financial health, we don't have to change any of the rules, we don't have to bring in another level of transparency as well as enforcement. That's a governing philosophy.
Shortly after Barton issued his apology to BP, Republican leaders forced him to retract it. They needn't have bothered. Too many other Republicans have made similar comments. Rand Paul, the party's Senate nominee in Kentucky, has called Obama's rhetoric against BP "un-American in his criticism of business." Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has accused Obama of "extortion" against BP and has warned that the company "shouldn't have to be fleeced. … Obama loves to make evil whatever company it is that he wants to get more power from." Video of these comments, along with a clip from House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., appears in a new DNC television ad. But the clincher is a June 16 statement from the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, which claims to represent "over 115 House Republicans." The statement declares:
BP's reported willingness to go along with the White House's new fund suggests that the Obama Administration is hard at work exerting its brand of Chicago-style shakedown politics. These actions are emblematic of a politicization of our economy that has been borne out of this Administration's drive for greater power and control.
Big government, meddling in the economy, demonizing companies, shaking down business. It's the standard conservative message, applied in a context that makes that message look ridiculous. But Barton has made it look worse than ridiculous. He has made it look immoral. That's why the DNC's attack videos linger lovingly over his most heartfelt words to Hayward: " I'm ashamed … tragedy of the first proportion … I apologize." To the hollowness of libertarian dogma, he has added the debasement of apologizing to the perpetrator. He has made conservatism a perversion.
And he has put his party in an impossible position. The party of business can't win a debate over a huge oil spill, any more than the party of peace and diplomacy can win a debate over terrorism. The key to Republican success in the BP fiasco has been to shut up about ideology and accuse Obama of not doing enough. Now that Barton, Bachmann, and other House Republicans have accused Obama of doing too much, he can get back on the winning side of the issue.
Republicans sound pretty silly when they try to square the BP mess with their usual clichés. "The president has been advocating expansion of government across the board in virtually every area," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., complained on Fox News Sunday. "If you're going to advocate expansion of the government, then you look not so good when the government you're already in charge of doesn't function very well." On Face the Nation, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., impersonated Ralph Nader: "The regulators have got to be on top of the industry, not the industry on top of the regulators." On This Week, George Will said claims against BP should be left to "courts," "due process," and "judicial supervision." For a moment, I was afraid he might endorse Roe v. Wade.
Even the Republicans' favorite campaign issue of the Bush years, patriotism, can be turned against them in the BP debate. At the House hearing, Barton apologized to "British Petroleum" for Obama's violation of "the British tradition" of due process. Rep. Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat who chaired the hearing, followed with a jab at Hayward's nationality: "I am sure you will get your life back, and with a golden parachute back to England. But we in America are left with the terrible consequences of BP's reckless disregard for safety." Then Hayward (who had already told the Times of London that BP could expect "lots of illegitimate claims" for damages because "This is America") went to a boat race back home, prompting U.S. talk show hosts to mock him for "yachting in cleaner waters off the coast of England." It didn't help when George Will, in BP's defense, quoted "The Economist of London."
The DNC, in its attack ad on Barton, came close to playing the Redcoat card. The ad showed Cantor agreeing as an interviewer suggested, in a clear English accent, that Obama should "stop demonizing BP." But jingoism isn't Obama's style. Nor is partisanship. And that's the chief reason why Democrats might not make full use of their advantage: Their president doesn't like to polarize.
Obama, like Clinton, is politically moderate. And unlike Clinton, he's averse to caricaturing the other party. "Too much government can deprive us of choice and burden us with debt," he conceded in his June 2 speech. "Poorly designed regulations can choke off competition and the capital that businesses need to thrive." He called for "balance," and Emanuel echoed that message on Sunday. Whereas Barton thinks "industry is the most important voice," said Emanuel, Obama thinks "there are many equities and they all have to be at the table."
"Many equities" might be a good formula for making policy. But it's possibly the lamest campaign message I've ever heard. "In the coming weeks you'll see the president speak to the country about these competing different philosophies," Emanuel promised. And that difference would be clear: "Do you have only the energy executives in the room, or do you have energy executives, environmentalists, and other people from the venture capital community?"
Equities? Executives? The venture capital community? What kind of populism is that? If that's the best Democrats can do with Barton's gift, they owe him an apology.