Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Rachel Maddow last night:

Republicans are at war right now over whether or not BP has been treated unfairly -- and more broadly, on what counts as a conservative response to this environmentsal disaster. On the one hand, you have Republicans like Adam Putnam of Florida and Aaron Schock of Illinois introducing legislation they say to toughen up government regulation of the oil industry. On the other hand, you have Republicans like Randy Brogdon -- he's running for governor in Oklahoma. He tells the Associated Press, quote, "The oil spill is a perfect example of why government should never be involved in the private sector. Government is not the solution. It's the problem. The more government tries to get in and regulate the free market, the worse things become." Mr. Brogdon is trying to get elected on the "don't blame BP" platform, set the oil companies free. Leave BP alone. This is a moment when Republicans ought to be sailing toward huge political victory. They are poised to win lots of congressional seats this year. But in a year when they had enough trouble trying to get people to turn to them for answers in the abstract, now looking to them for answers on this very specific, deadly, pressing ongoing problem may have changed the whole course of politics for this midterm year.

Wow, Rachel -- I'd love to think so. I'd love to think having some folks out there defending BP would sink the GOP at the polls. I'd love to think that the fact that Joe Barton has been denounced by members of his own party is a sign that the party is struggling to devise a response that satisfies both the crazies in the base and the public at large.

I'm just afraid that they have devised a response. It's to talk out of both sides of the party's collective face. And it really could work.

If you barely pay attention to the news, you think the "official" GOP position is that Barton was wrong and that he's been taken to the woodshed for what he said. If you're a talk-radio/Fox News crazy, you know that plenty of your heroes are resisting the demand to recant.

The party isn't really fractured. The party is offering products for both markets.

And both camps are saying what they say forthrightly. Both camps -- even the one that claims to agree with President Obama about the BP escrow fund -- denounce him on most matters forthrightly. And forthrightness, more than any actual position on an issue, may be all that the people in the middle want. It's certainly what Richard Cohen wants, and punditry like his helps shape public opinion:

This, of course, is the Obama enigma: Who is this guy? What are his core beliefs? The president himself is no help on this score. When it comes to his own image, he has a tin ear. He hugely misunderstood what some people were saying when they demanded that he get angry over the gulf oil catastrophe and the insult-to-injury statements of BP chief executive Tony Hayward....

What these people were seeking was not an eruption of anger, not a tantrum and not a full-scale denunciation of an oil company. What they wanted instead was a sign that this catastrophe meant something to Obama, that it was not merely another problem that had crossed his desk -- and this time just wouldn't budge. He showed not the slightest sign in the idiom that really counts in a media age -- body language -- that he gave a damn. He could see your pain, he could talk about your pain, but he gave no indication that he felt it.

See, you might have thought that we wanted the president to actually do something more to resolve the crisis. But no -- according to Cohen, we just want him to hold his shoulders differently.

I'm not sure if Cohen actually is describing how low-information voters see the world -- but I do think he's describing how Beltway scribes see it. They want strong, and (in Bill Clinton's famous formulation) they prefer even strong and wrong to weak and right. (And, of course, it's easy to be strong when you're in the out party, and all you have to do is talk.)

Haley Barbour, of course, has been part of the "Leave BP Alone" crowd -- and he was rewarded for that stance with a story in The New York Times that touted him as a possible 2012 presidential candidate. Digby recoiled at that, appalled that "this oleaginous whore" would be so celebrated by the allegedly liberal media. Rachel Maddow and The Nation's Chris Hayes tried to puzzle that out last night:

MADDOW: ... Mississippi governor Haley Barbour has been downplaying the spill in every way possible, saying that it's no big deal, saying you don't want to wash your face in it, but it's OK to swim in it. I mean, he's really, really downplaying it, now saying a moratorium on drilling will be worse than the oil spill -- the biggest environmental catastrophe in American history. That has earned him Beltway compliments. The response to that behavior by Haley Barbour is, maybe Haley Barbour is running for president. Can you please explain how that logic works to me?

HAYES: ... There's a sort of cheap contrarianism that folks in the Beltway like. And for some reason, they love Haley Barbour because he used to be one of the racketeers hanging out on Capitol Hill, basically laundering money through Congress and the K Street operation. So he's one of the good old boys.

What they like is his "body language," to use Cohen's formulation. They like the fact that he likes himself and has no self-doubt and is "colorful" and forthright. Is what he says right? They don't care.

As I've pointed out, Beltway scribes love Barbour to pieces, and have written will-Haley-run-for-president? stories over and over again -- in the Mississippi press in '04, in The Washington Post in '05, in U.S. News in '09, in the Post again that same year, and in Newsweek in January of this year. They don't need an oil spill or a hurricane -- they don't need a reason at all. They just dig the guy. Remember how they dug the George W. Bush of 2000? It's as if Haley Barbour is the father Candidate W should have had.

I actually think the public, faced with a Barbour presidential bid, would show better judgment than the press -- I think the public would conclude that Barbour really is an "oleaginous whore" (or oleaginous procurer). If he were running for something this year in a non-oil state, the public would expect him to be a hell of a lot nastier to BP. But for now he's just part of the noise, and as long as some Republicans are in tune with the general public, the rest can probably be as pro-BP as they choose. The party message is calculatedly muddied, and different market segments will hear what they want to hear.

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