Did the Oil Spill Boomerang on Republicans?

Joe Barton, clothed. Alex Wong / Getty Images

So how does an incumbent party fight back? Typically running on one's accomplishments would be the obvious answer. And the Democrats do have accomplishments to point to. The problem is that they tend to be either smaller than the problems we face (a raised minimum wage, increased support for student loans) or controversial (TARP bailouts, the Recovery Act, health-care reform). A Democrat in a swing district gripped with populist anti-big-government fervor can't save her skin by highlighting those pieces of legislation. Imagine you are Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid, for example. You are unpopular in your home state, and running on your effectiveness as pushing through controversial measures is not the way to hold your seat: attacking your extremist opponent, Sharron Angle, is your best bet.

The assumption that going negative is the sole province of insurgents is false. Consider 2004, when President Bush, faced with mediocre approval ratings, won reelection by relentlessly caricaturing Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a decorated war hero, as an effete, wishy-washy, unpatriotic snob. If Democrats want to hold on to control of Congress, they need to go negative. But that is not easily done when you hold the reins of power and your opponents are diffuse, not one easily attacked figurehead like Kerry (or, say, Sarah Palin).

Enter Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the ranking Republican on the House Energy Committee. First, a little background: Some Republicans and conservatives have been flaying President Obama for what they perceive as his failures to address the oil spill. This always seemed a curious strategy. Did the GOP really want to remind voters of the influence of Big Oil after two Republican oil executives filled out their 2000 and 2004 national tickets? As Howard Fineman has noted, this is not just a bad year for incumbents nor a bad year for big government—though it is, and that's bad for Democrats—it's also a bad year for big anything, especially big business. So keeping the public fixated on the perfidy of an oil company was a slightly odd, and risky, choice for Republicans. Case in point: former energy-services executive, and energetic Obama critic, Dick Cheney has been curiously silent on the whole BP fiasco. It might have been safer for Republicans to get back to complaining about deficit spending.

So, when Barton yesterday apologized to BP for what he called a "shakedown"—BP's creation, at Obama's behest, of a $20 billion escrow fund to compensate the victims of the spill—Democrats pounced. Republicans and conservatives had, in fact, been attacking the deal as a socialist scheme. But Barton committed a gaffe in the classic Washington sense of the word: saying what you really think when you shouldn't.

Visit barackobama.com, the site controlled by Organizing for America, which was spun out of the Obama campaign, and the top banner announces, "We support holding BP accountable and we won't apologize for doing so." Meanwhile the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is bending over backward to tie every target to their colleagues who have sided with "British Petroleum" over the American people. (For instance, they assert "Tim Griffin Backed by Defenders of British Petroleum" because the Arksansas candidate promised to support the agenda of the Republican Study Committee, which criticized the escrow account.) Friday morning on the Senate floor, Reid attacked Republicans as being the cause of our current economic woes, comparing their role to that of BP in the oil spill. "If not for the Republicans disdain for sensible oversight, the disasters from Wall Street to the Gulf of Mexico, the communities across America might not have been so devastated," said Reid.

Think back to 2006, when Enron imploded, and because President Bush had been a major recipient of their campaign donations it reflected poorly on him. When your party controlled the federal bureaucracy for eight of the last 10 years and you are the party associated in the public mind with Big Oil, dissatisfaction over the government's response to an oil spill is not the issue you want to run on. But for the Democrats, it is the perfect way to remind the public that while they may not like the team currently in charge, they might dislike the other guys even more.