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Loose lips prompt warning

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David Broder
June 20, 2010
— The eagerness with which Democrats pounced on the foolish comment of Rep. Joe Barton of Texas that BP had been the victim of a White House “shakedown” tells you everything you need to know about their need to change the subject from the problems confronting the Obama administration.

For weeks, it has appeared increasingly likely that voters will use midterm elections in November to signal their unhappiness with the lingering effects of the Great Recession, the threat of uncontrolled deficits, the stalemate in Afghanistan and the continuing tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico by inflicting serious losses on Democratic candidates.


Unless.


Unless one Republican after another steps into the limelight, apparently eager to demonstrate that however bad the Democrats look, the opposition could be worse.


The parade of horribles that began with GOP Senate nominees (borrowed from the tea party movement) in Kentucky and Nevada challenging accepted wisdom on everything from civil rights to Social Security reached a new height with Barton’s wildly mistaken decision to defend the world’s most unpopular oil company from a fictitious strong-arm assault.


Barton, a longtime advocate of the oil and gas industry, seized a microphone right after President Obama had extracted a promise from BP executives that they would create a $20 billion trust fund from which to compensate families and companies victimized by the accident on its offshore drilling platform.


While almost everyone else congratulated the president for nailing down the commitment that gave force to BP’s pledge to satisfy all legitimate claims, Barton discerned in the transaction a terrible threat to the free-enterprise system, calling it a Chicago-style “shakedown.” The leaders of the Republican minority on Capitol Hill had managed to swallow without gagging the musings of a Kentucky candidate who criticizes the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and a Nevada nominee who has problems with the Social Security Act of 1935.


But when Barton—on the very day when the BP chief executive officer was demonstrating his political ineptitude to derisive Republicans and Democrats on a House energy subcommittee—appointed himself the defense attorney for Big Oil, it was more than even the GOP leadership could tolerate.


House Minority Leader John Boehner and his lieutenants summoned the Texan to his chambers and ordered him to recant and apologize—which he promptly did.


But not before White House press secretary Robert Gibbs had issued a stern rebuke on behalf of the president, followed swiftly by virtually every Democrat on Capitol Hill in reach of a camera, a fax machine or a phone.


To hear them tell it, Barton was not a solo malefactor but the guy who had given away the secret Republican command: Go forth and pollute. We’ve got your back.


Barton was the best thing that has happened to the Democrats in months. All of a sudden, they were not defending the undersea gusher they don’t know how to cap; they were charging that the opposition was in bed with the corporate bad guys.


Why so eager? Because in the past few days, they had read election analyst Stuart Rothenberg forecast that five of their Senate seats are leaning Republican and two others they now control are toss-ups. If they lost all of them, their Senate margin would be down to four seats.


A similar House analysis by academics Alan Abramowitz and Larry Sabato projects Republican gains of 32 to 39 seats. The latter number would be just enough to make Boehner the speaker, replacing Nancy Pelosi.


These numbers will change as the campaigns unfold. But you can see why the Democrats pounced on Barton, and why Boehner and Co. might want to hand out muzzles to their members.


David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may write to him via e-mail at davidbroder@washpost.com.

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