Democrats Seize ‘Pivot Point’ in Barton Apology to BP

It is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown, in this case a $20 billion shakedown.
—Texas GOP Rep. Joe Barton to BP CEO Tony Hayward during a House energy hearing Thursday on the gulf spill.

Regardless of what he actually meant, GOP Rep. Joe Barton’s apology to BP CEO Tony Hayward this morning has sent his party into crisis mode. Republican and Democratic leaders have fallen over themselves to repudiate BP’s arrogant comments and at times sluggish response. But Barton’s lament that the White House partook in a “shakedown” of BP during a Roosevelt Room meeting yesterday seems to significantly change the debate.

The comments struck reporters in the room as odd. There was nothing for Barton to gain by publicly bowing to Hayward, nor did BP gain any measurable good will from the acknowledgment that it may have been bullied by Obama. Instead, says a Republican staffer, “there was almost an instant admission that what he said could turn into a huge problem.”

This staffer’s instinct was right. Sensing blood in the water, the White House quickly shot a statement to reporters, calling Barton’s comments “shameful” and hammering Barton on the fact that gulf fishermen and small-business owners are more worthy of an apology. “Congressman Barton may think that a fund to compensate these Americans is a ‘tragedy,’ but most Americans know that the real tragedy is what the men and women of the Gulf Coast are going through right now,” said Robert Gibbs in a style, noted Politico’s Ben Smith, very reminiscent of how the Obama campaign used to shoot back at Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

Democratic rapid-response shops knew instantly, according to one aide, that this could be their moment to win the higher ground on energy legislation, if only they could tie Barton’s comments to his entire party. “Republicans have made a very costly mistake with their shameful defense of BP and their continued loyalty to their financial backers from Big Oil,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee press secretary Ryan Rudominer told NEWSWEEK. Then, he said, the DCCC would be putting out press releases later today in districts of all House Republicans on this topic.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Washington narratives get written.