Democrats hope to make Joe Barton really sorry for his blunder.

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June 17 2010 11:13 PM

Barton's Blunder

Democrats hope to make Joe Barton really sorry.

Also in Slate, Michael Newman describes BP chief Tony Hayward's dodgy testimony. 

Video: Rep. Joe Barton Calls Fund a "$20 Billion Shakedown". Click image to launch video.

When a player scores on his team in soccer, it's called an own goal. In politics, it may be known for a while as a Joe Barton. He's the Texas Republican House member who started Thursday apologizing to the CEO of BP and ended the day apologizing for his apology—twice. Barton made the retractions after "consulting" with Republican leaders, in the hopes of limiting the damage to his party, keeping his committee assignment, and diminishing the political opportunity for Democrats.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

It was supposed to be BP's sorry day. First its chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, apologized for calling the residents of the Gulf "small people."* Then its CEO, Tony Hayward, was scheduled for a day of saying sorry during a hearing on Capitol Hill devoted to the string of BP failures that led to the ongoing disaster. When the hearing started, though, Barton was steaming. As the top Republican on the committee, he told Hayward that he was "ashamed" that the White House had pushed the company into creating a $20 billion fund to cover claims associated with the spill. It was a "shakedown" said Barton, a "tragedy of the first proportion"—which is something, considering how grim the tragedies are that get a first-proportion ranking.

For those who have been looking for acts of determination, resolution, and core conviction on the public stage, here was a good example of the form. There were audible gasps in the room. They may have been from Republicans. With public disapproval of BP at 80 percent, and nearly daily disclosures of its mishandling of the Deepwater operation, the company is a pariah. How toxic is BP? To deliver a knockout blow to the climate change legislation the president supports, Senate Republicans have been saying that BP backs it.

So this was not a time to be apologizing. GOP staffers talked about the blunder in historic terms. Twice in e-mail exchanges I had with veterans, they cited their years of service before noting they'd never heard something so stupid. "He put his Republican colleagues in a difficult position, he put Republican senators in a difficult position and he put every Republican candidate in a difficult position who has to answer for him," said one aide. "And he's thrown the White House a lifeline."

Barton was instructed by GOP leaders to reverse course—apologize and retract or face losing his rank on the committee. He apologized grudgingly, saying, "[I]f anything I said this morning has been misconstrued to the opposite effect I want to apologize for that misconstrued misconstruction." That wasn't good enough. Later, in a second apology, he apologized for using term "shakedown" and retracted his apology to BP. To drive the point home, House Republican leaders put out their own statement calling Barton "wrong," and saying the $20 billion fund was a proper way to hold the company accountable. "BP itself has acknowledged that responsibility for the economic damages lies with them and has offered an initial pledge of $20 billion for that purpose." Barton is still apparently on probation. "If he's the Joe Barton of 3 o'clock today, fine," says one aide. "But if he's the Joe Barton of 10 o'clock, he has a problem."

The Barton rig had blown at around 10 a.m., and by 4 p.m. GOP leaders had contained the initial damage. (If only federal officials had moved as quickly to clean up the Gulf oil spill.) But Democrats were working hard to exploit the environmental damage. The White House led the charge. First Vice President Joe Biden said the apology was "incredibly insensitive" and "incredibly out of touch" with those whose lives have been affected by the disaster. Then White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs suggested Barton be stripped of his position.

It was a secondary benefit for the White House that what was being debated was the president's tough action on BP. Obama had been criticized for weeks for not showing leadership. Now he was being criticized for using his office too forcefully.

Democrats have been searching for a way to make this year's election a choice between two parties and not a referendum on President Obama's performance. They see this as one of their best opportunities to date. The hope is to make Barton emblematic of a Republican mind-set—so in favor of big corporations and oblivious to the little guy that he would apologize for a fund designed to pay back out-of-work fishermen and others devastated by the spill.

This strategy has been tried before. Democrats have tried to make Republican senatorial candidates Rand Paul in Kentucky and Sharron Angle in Nevada representative of the party. Their efforts have been hampered in part because those two candidates have been disciplined or shown self-discipline. When Paul said the attack on BP was "un-American," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuted the comments and advised Paul to stop talking. Angle learned that lesson and is staying mum  (or at least she's trying to).

What makes Barton different is that he is the ranking member of the committee, given his rank by the party leadership. He's a powerful figure, not a fringe candidate. Gibbs tried to drive this point home in 140 characters on Twitter: "Who would the GOP put in charge of overseeing the energy industry & Big Oil if they won control of Congress? Yup, u guessed it – JOE BARTON." Democrats also pointed out that Barton was not alone in holding this view. The 114-member Republican Study Committee put out a press release Wednesday calling the fund a "shakedown."

By the end of the day David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager in 2008, had sent an e-mail to millions of Obama's supporters asking them to sign an "open letter" that would send a message to Barton to show "him and other Republicans that they weren't elected to defend big oil." Even if people sign on to the effort, it's not a letter that Plouffe will ever send. The reality is there's not a single thing about Joe Barton's behavior they'd like to change.

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Correction, June 18, 2010: This article originally misquoted Carl-Henric Svanberg as calling residents of the Gulf "little people." (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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