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The BP ‘shakedown’: Will Barton’s gaffe help Democrats?

After Obama exacted a $20 billion escrow fund from BP CEO Tony Hayward, Joe Barton, a senior Republican on the House Energy Committee, apologized to Hayward for the “shakedown.”

Democrats finally have a reason to smile, said John Nichols in The Nation, and his name is Joe Barton. The Texas congressman—and senior Republican on the House Energy Committee—made the mistake last week of highlighting how conservatives really view the calamity unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. A day after Obama wrested a pledge from BP to establish a $20 billion escrow fund to compensate Gulf Coast businesses and workers, Barton told BP CEO Tony Hayward during a congressional hearing that he was “ashamed” of Obama’s “shakedown.” Then, looking directly at Hayward, who has become the face of BP’s inept and tone-deaf handling of the worst oil spill in American history, Barton said: “I am not speaking for anyone else, but I apologize.” The Republican leadership, sensing “a political firestorm of epic proportions,” quickly muscled Barton into backtracking, and he apologized for his apology.

Not so fast, said Jay Bookman in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Barton may have picked a dumb time and place to express sympathy for BP, but his belief that Obama had wronged the company “permeates the conservative movement,” and was echoed by Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and Fox Business News. In fact, Barton got that “shakedown” talking point from the Republican Study Committee, a 115-member House caucus, which the day before declared that the relief fund was “born out of this administration’s drive for greater power and control.” For Democrats worried about the upcoming midterm elections, said Todd Gillman in The Dallas Morning News, “Barton’s gusher was Texas tea.” Barton has now reminded voters that Republicans have always been—and remain—extremely cozy with Big Oil, and instinctively oppose government regulation and intervention, even when corporations do grave damage to the public interest. 

Barton’s choice of words was “impolitic,” said Michael Barone in National Review Online, but he spoke the truth. With a threat of criminal prosecution looming, BP “agreed” to establish a fund that will be lorded over by Obama-appointed “pay czar” Kenneth Feinberg. “So what we have is government transferring property from one party, an admittedly unattractive one, to others”—without regard to existing laws or due process. That’s not merely a shakedown; it’s “thuggery.” What’s more, said Daniel Henninger in The Wall Street Journal, “the beating Obama is giving BP isn’t the exception.” The same “visceral anti-business animosity” was on display when he verbally “punched out” insurance companies to push through his health-care overhaul and when he sneered at Wall Street firms for seeking big profits and paying big bonuses. Obama is not the “socialist” the Right imagines, said The Economist, but with his appetite to control the private sector, and browbeat companies that get in his way, he’s coming to resemble “an American version of Vladimir Putin.”

Hey, whatever works, said Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times. Obama was rightly criticized for being “too slow to recognize the impact of the disaster,” but by extracting that $20 billion pledge from BP, he’s shown that “actions speak louder than words.” BP’s executives are well aware that the company relies on federal permits to drill and has contracts to sell $2.2 billion of fuel to the Pentagon. “So was it a shakedown? Sure—although the polite word for it in Washington is ‘jawboning.’” As the Republicans now running for cover obviously understand, “when the beneficiaries of a shakedown are taxpayers and the Gulf Coast, most Americans don’t mind a little strong-arming.”

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