Friday Talking Points [128] -- Merry Bartonmas!

Christmas has come in June for the Democratic Party. Republican Joe Barton just delivered a huge, nicely wrapped present to Democrats. The only question is whether they'll open it and make use of it, or halfheartedly play with it once and then throw it in a corner (since the Democratic Party is kind of fickle about using such free gifts from Republicans, for no explicable reason whatsoever). But more on the flailing Joe Barton in a bit.

First, I have to say something. Earlier this week, President Obama united the nation. Just not how he wanted to, that's all. Obama gave his first primetime Oval Office speech Tuesday, and pretty much everybody agreed that they hated his speech. The Left hated it, the Right hated it, the media hated it (albeit all for different reasons). So here we are, not a "red" America or a "blue" America, but a United States of America, panning the president's speech.

Perhaps due to my contrarian nature, I actually liked the speech. This puts me in a group with Al Gore, and... um... not too many others. But I did find one write-up, from the "Media Notes" column written by Howard Kurtz over at the Washington Post, which kind of sums up my astonishment at the reactions to Obama's speech:

As someone who thought the speech wasn't all that bad, I ask this question: What was Obama supposed to do?

If he had been less upbeat about the future, he would have been criticized for being too pessimistic and dragging everyone down.

If he had attacked BP more vigorously, he would have drawn flak for being anti-business.

If he had raised his voice and banged the desk, he would have been called too angry.

If he had failed to talk about an energy plan for the future, he would have been chided for having no vision.

If he had laid out what he wants in an environmental bill, he would have been faulted for boring the country with legislative details.

And maybe that was the problem. With the spillcam showing oil still pouring into the Gulf, nothing Obama said could be truly reassuring.

Sigh. Well, since I already wrote my immediate reactions to Obama's speech in detail this week, and since nobody seems to agree with my take on it, we'll just move right along here instead.


Or maybe we won't! To be even further contrarian, this week we are awarding the coveted Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award to President Barack Obama.

[Your humble moderator ducks, as rotten fruit is thrown from left, center, and right...]

OK, well, we don't expect a whole lot of agreement for this position, but at least allow us to attempt to explain.

Barack Obama got in front of "oil week" this week. First, he leaked (last weekend) the major ideas he would cover in his speech. Then he gave the speech. The next day, BP met with him at the White House, and announced they were voluntarily putting up twenty billion dollars into an escrow fund to pay victims of their disaster. Throughout the week, oil executives have been testifying on Capitol Hill. The oil catastrophe has been front and center, all week long.

But while everyone's getting in a tizzy over what Obama said, what Obama didn't say, how Obama sounded, and all the rest of the breathless post-speech "analysis," two things happened. The first was the escrow fund. And the second was the meltdown of the Republican Party over the issue. We'll get to the Republicans in a bit.

But here's the impressive thing that nobody seems to have noticed: BP did not have to agree to the escrow fund. They had no legal reason compelling them to do so. Their damages (other than direct damages) have been capped at the pathetically-low amount of $75 million, by Congress. That is all they'd have to legally pay out, if they chose to fight every claim in court.

Which they could have done. This is a crucial thing, which not many people have commented upon.

Now, you can argue that BP knew that if they didn't go along with the fund idea, they would have paid a horrendous price in public relations. You can also argue that the White House and BP had essentially agreed to the fund last weekend, and Obama's speech and the meeting with the BP executives was nothing more than a previously-scripted dog-and-pony show. But that's the game of politics. And, rolling the news of the fund out the way the White House did, it showed that they were demanding a fund -- with absolutely zero legal position to back them up -- from BP, and that BP was knuckling under to the strong leadership of Barack Obama.

Anyone who scoffs that BP would never go the route of fighting everything in court should remember Exxon, and what happened after the Valdez spill. This is the usual route for gigantic corporations to take. After all, they've got lots of expensive lawyers on the payroll to do precisely that.

Now, no one can know at this point how the whole escrow fund thing is going to work out. It may work wonders, and put a smile on everyone's face from the Florida Keys to Texas. It may have problems, and cause frustration. It may ultimately be seen as a failure, and it may also ultimately be seen as a rousing success -- or, most likely, something between those two.

But the fact remains that BP did not have to do this and that they did so because Barack Obama demanded it, with nothing to back him up but the weight of public opinion. In other words, getting BP to agree to pay over a full year's worth of their profits into this fund showed real leadership.

And not just real leadership, but downright impressive leadership. Which is why, this week (knowing not a lot of folks are going to agree), Barack Obama wins the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award.

[Congratulate President Barack Obama on the official White House contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]


Two Democrats really stood out this week in the disappointing category.

Jerry Brown, Democratic candidate for governor in California, was quoted by a reporter comparing his Republican rival Meg Whitman's advertising to the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.

There's really nothing more that needs be said about that, other than to make the obligatory reference to Godwin's Law. Politicians, in this day and age, should know to never, ever make reference to Nazis -- once again: never, ever -- unless you are literally talking about Germany during World War II. Brown is not some new-guy-on-the-political-scene, he's lived politics his entire life (his father was governor before him). So there's really no excuse possible.

Our second Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award winner is Representative Bob Etheridge, Democrat from North Carolina. Etheridge, in his own display of idiocy with someone who identified himself as a student doing a journalism project, decided that the proper thing to do (with camera running) was to assault the guy. Etheridge clamps a vise grip on the kid's arm, and refuses to let him go, while demanding to know who the kid is. At one point, he grabs the kid's neck.

Now, I don't really care if it's a right-winger trying to set you up or whether it's a lefty doing the guerrilla journalism ambush interview -- either way, there are several legitimate and acceptable responses an elected official can make to this sort of thing. Grabbing the guy and refusing to let go is simply not one of them. As a matter of fact, it's illegal to do this to someone on a public sidewalk.

So, for boneheaded moves with members of the press (even loosely defined), and especially (in the case of Etheridge) while the camera was rolling, we award both Jerry Brown and Bob Etheridge Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week awards. For shame, guys, for shame.

[Contact Representative Bob Etheridge on his House contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions. We do not post candidate sites here as a rule, so you'll have to Google Jerry Brown's name to find a contact site for him, sorry.]


Volume 128 (6/18/10)

Ho ho ho! Merry Bartonmas!

Heh. Couldn't resist.

Representative Joe Barton, oil industry shill extraordinaire, is the ranking Republican on the House committee that deals with oil drilling. Just think about that for a moment -- Barton would be the chairman of this committee if the Democrats lose control of the House.

As the ranking minority member of the committee, which was grilling the chief of BP, Barton got to speak first for the Republicans. He opened his mouth wide, and inserted his foot, up to about the ankle. As everyone has doubtlessly already heard, Barton actually apologized to BP for the "shakedown" that they had been forced into earlier at the White House.

This was no fringe opinion, either. The Republicans had sent around an official talking points list for Republicans to attempt not to look like the boot-licking toadies to the oil industry which they really are. One of these talking points was designed to get public opinion heavily against the escrow fund Obama got from BP. It told Republicans to say that it was nothing more than a "Chicago-style shakedown."

Now, the concept that forcing a corporation to pay for the damages they do is akin to getting shaken down by a thug is downright laughable, I'll admit. But Republicans have sold sillier nonsense than this to the American public and gotten away with it before, so you never know.

This time, though, it has spectacularly backfired on the Republicans. In their blind hatred of all things Obama, they have not realized that the escrow fund sounds like a pretty darn good idea to just about everyone with more than two brain cells to rub together. And attacking the idea sounds pretty stupid to most folks, too.

Joe Barton has provided a golden opportunity for Democrats to come out swinging on the issue. The Republicans have chosen to side with BP, and it is becoming more and more obvious to everyone. By doing so (and especially Barton's apology), they have left themselves wide open to political attack from Democrats. If they have the spine for it (always an open question).

Here are just some things Democrats can say in the upcoming week. Really, with Barton's comments, these things just about write themselves, so feel free to make up your own as well.


   Rape of the Gulf

This first one has been in the background for awhile now. People have been objecting to the term "oil spill" because it just doesn't encompass the magnitude of the disaster. So I've been hunting around for a better way to describe it, and I found it in a Huffington Post column by Robert Scheer this week -- the word "rape."

"You know, calling this disaster an oil spill, I think, doesn't go far enough to describe this tragedy. This was nothing short of the rape of the Gulf of Mexico by BP. It was a man-made disaster that is going to have long-term consequences we can barely even imagine right now. Joe Barton, this week, called President Obama forcing BP to create a compensation fund a 'tragedy' -- he actually said: 'I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown.' Well you know what, Representative Barton? I call what is happening right now in the Gulf of Mexico a tragedy. I call the impact on Gulf Coast residents a tragedy. In fact, let's call it what it really is -- the rape of the Gulf."


   Sometimes government is the answer

One major difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans aren't shy about explaining their views on government -- their core, bedrock ideas of what government should and should not be about. Democrats never seem able to make their own case on this front. But now is precisely the time to do so.

"As far as Republicans are concerned, all government is bad all of the time, and all corporations are good all of the time. BP has ripped the lid off of this knee-jerk view of what government is supposed to be about -- as evidenced by Republicans complaining about the escrow fund President Obama forced BP to set up, and Joe Barton actually apologizing to BP for government forcing them to pay the costs of their disaster. Well, you know what? Sometimes it takes leadership from the government to rein in the worst impulses of businesses. Sometimes the free market isn't able to get things done in a timely manner. In times like these, Republicans are quick to cry for governmental help, without realizing the incredible irony of their doing so. Also in times like these, Republicans are awfully silent about the relative intelligence of deregulation. Sometimes government is the answer, and big business is the problem -- and Republicans really should admit this basic fact."


   Whatever happened to responsibility and accountability?

When you've grabbed an axe and started chopping away at the roots of your opponent, keep at it until the tree falls over.

"You know, watching the Republican reactions towards BP is a little astonishing for those of us who can remember when the Republican Party was supposed to be about concepts like 'accountability' and 'responsibility.' Republicans made a lot of political hay over how they supposedly championed these values. Well, what I'd like to hear from Republicans today, in reference to BP, whatever happened to the idea of holding people accountable, and demanding responsibility? Because it seems now that Republicans are against these basic concepts. Now, apparently, Republicans fall on their knees apologizing to corporations, because those nasty Democrats have forced the company to be responsible and accountable for their actions. Now, Republicans consider a Democratic president holding a company responsible as a 'Chicago-style shakedown.' How times change, eh?"


   Obama showed leadership

Don't know how many Democrats will take me up on this one, but I have to try to defend Obama against his critics this week.

"I've heard some folks complain that Obama's speech on Tuesday didn't have any details in it. Well, the next day, Obama filled in a big detail -- a twenty billion dollar detail. This time last week, the idea of creating an escrow fund to be administered by a third-party to pay off people in the Gulf whose lives would otherwise be ruined wasn't even being talked about -- not by Congress, not by the media, and certainly not by BP. One week later, Obama got BP to agree to voluntarily put up the twenty billion for this fund. This is $19,925,000,000 more than they would have otherwise had to pay. When it soon gets up and running, it will get this money to the people who desperately need it right now to survive. Personally, I'd call that a pretty big detail -- one we weren't even discussing a week ago."


   Ask an Alaskan fisherman

The alternative to the escrow fund needs to be discussed as well, especially to anyone criticizing its creation.

"So, if you don't like the idea of the escrow fund Obama just set up, then let's take a look at what would happen if it weren't there. Let's consider the alternative, in other words. Without a third party overseeing the money, it would be totally up to BP to decide whether your damage claim was justified or not. Since they've got a vested interest, a lot of people would be frustrated. If BP turned down their claim, they'd have to sue BP to get the money. Lawsuits take years to be resolved. If you own a restaurant on the Gulf and you had to take this route, your business would be closed down long before you'd ever see a dime of restitution. Your livelihood would be destroyed, waiting for the process to work. I invite anyone who thinks this is the best way to handle the situation to ask a few Alaskan fishermen how that worked out with Exxon."


   Then ask someone in the Gulf

This is really the second part to the above.

"And you know, in a few weeks when the escrow fund starts issuing checks to people, I think you really need to go down and ask a few folks who have just gotten their first -- first, not "only" -- check in repayment for the damages BP did to their lives how they feel about the escrow fund. Because I don't think a single one of them is going to say that they'd rather wait five or ten years to see some money from BP. I strongly doubt a single one of them would speak out against the escrow fund Barack Obama just created. People are going to be paid much faster than any legal process would normally allow. This is going to make a huge difference in people's lives who have been affected by BP. Obama showed real leadership in creating this fund, and it will avoid the endless legal delays which normally take place after such a disaster."


   "You Should Totally Apologize to BP"

OK, this one's just for fun.

"You know, I heard Republican Joe Barton in the House committee meeting with the top executive at BP -- I heard how Barton actually apologized to BP. It should come as no surprise, since Republicans have been oil industry apologists for quite a while now. But Barton's apology was such an odious slap in the face to thousands upon thousands of Gulf Coast residents, that I think he should be more concerned with apologizing to the American citizens affected by BP than with apologizing to BP for having to pay to clean up their mess. I think most Americans agree that BP should pay to clean up their mess, and should pay people restitution for their man-made rape of the Gulf. Of course, if you disagree, I see that someone has set up a website where you can offer your own apologies to BP. Of course, the website -- titled 'You Should Totally Apologize to BP' -- is a joke. But then, so is Joe Barton."


Chris Weigant blogs at:

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant

Full archives of FTP columns:

All-time award winners leaderboard, by rank

Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground