Monday, June 21, 2010

Republicans seem to be their own worst enemy

Business Times - 22 Jun 2010

Republicans seem to be their own worst enemy

Republican Joe Barton's apology to BP's Mr Hayward only served to help the Democrats


THE conventional wisdom in Washington after US President Barack Obama's televised Oval Office address on the Gulf of Mexico's oil spill was that Mr Obama and the Democrats were going to suffer a lousy political week.

Opinion polls continued to reflect diminishing public support for the Democratic White House occupant. So, considering the zero-sum nature of current American politics, the bad news for the Democrats could only mean that the political week would end up with a huge win for the opposition.

Indeed, the expectation on Capitol Hill and the media last Tuesday was that the Republicans were going to exploit the ineffective performance of the president and the American people's anger over the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf Coast - not to mention the sluggish economic recovery and lingering unemployment - to score some big points as they prepare for the final round in this season's political game, the midterm elections in November.

But then you can always count on the Republicans to succeed in snatching political defeat from the jaws of victory. On Thursday, a day after the White House helped negotiate with BP the creation of US$20 billion fund for compensating some victims of the Gulf oil spill, and as lawmakers were grilling BP CEO Tony Hayward during a hearing on Capitol Hill, a leading Republican figure, Representative Joe Barton of Texas, seemed to be going out of his way to apologise to the head of the oil giant.

'I do not want to live in a country where any time a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong, they are subject to some sort of political pressure that amounts to a shakedown,' Mr Barton told BP's Mr Hayward during the hearing. 'So I apologise,' he stated.

No. That was not a spoof made-up by a comedian on television. One of the leading Republican energy analysts - and the top Republican on the House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce committee - accused President Obama of a 'shakedown' of those poor guys from BP while labelling the money the company will be paying the victims of the oil spill as a 'slush fund'. Yep. The BP and its executives were the misunderstood victims in this scandal.

Mr Barton's comments about alleged 'shakedown' of BP by the White helped ignite a huge political firestorm in Washington. They drew immediate criticism from the Democrats and the White House while embarrassed Republicans worried about being portrayed as sympathising with BP and Big Oil during an election year. And that was exactly what happened.

Even before the spill in the Gulf, Big Oil was regarded by most Americans as one of the greediest and most corrupt of businesses. And the Republican Party has been the bigger beneficiary of recent campaign money from the oil and gas companies and its major backer on Capitol Hill. Mr Barton himself has received US$1.4 million overall from the oil and gas lobbyists and more than US$100,000 this election cycle alone.

So it was not surprising that the narrative drawn-up by the media was depicting Mr Barton and the Republicans as Big Oil's Capitol Hill puppets. Here was the Democratic President siding with the real victims of the oil spill and pressing the BP to compensate them. And here were the Republicans coddling the guys who pocket billions of dollars each year while the Average Joe and Jane live from one paycheque to another.

And if Joe the fisherman and Jane the hotel receptionist happen to live on the devastated Gulf Coast then, well, there ain't gonna be any paycheque for him and her next month. And the Republicans are apologising to whom?

And they are denouncing the Democratic President who is lobbying for Joe and Jane - and not for BP CEO Tony Hayward - and who helped secure BP's agreement to put up a US$20 billion escrow account to cover its oil spill costs in the Gulf and indemnify the victims.

Peer pressure helps Democrats

Bowing to pressure from his Republican colleagues, Mr Barton was forced to apologise for his apology. But the incident could help the Democrats counter the Republican campaign to increase their numbers in the House of Representatives and the Senate in November. Indeed, Mr Barton and Republicans who are associated with the Tea-Party wing of their party seem to be playing directly into the Democrats by allowing them to set the agenda of the November election campaign - by portraying the Republicans as the ally of Big Business, Big Oil and Wall Street while marketing the Democrats as the champions of Main Street.

Hence in Kentucky, the Republicans nominated as their candidate for Senate, a Tea-Partyer Rand Paul, who not unlike Mr Barton, has accused Obama of being not-so-very-nice to BP and who has called for freeing American corporations from government 'control' like, say, environmental regulations.

In Nevada, Democratic Senator Harry Reid who until recently was considered to be a political dead duck has come back to life, now that the Republican nominated as his opponent, another Tea Partyer, Sharron Angle who has called for eliminating all the government's pension and health programmes (Social Security and Medicare) and to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Education.

Similarly, the Republicans have forced the popular Florida Republican Charlie Crist from the party by denying him the nomination as their candidate for the Senate from the state and instead demonstrating their preference for another Tea-Party favourite.

Even in California where the Republican nominated a relatively moderate figure, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as their candidate for the Senate, their chances of defeating incumbent Democrat Senator Barbara Boxer are not so great.

Ms Fiorina, reflecting the conservative social-cultural agenda of her party, is opposed to the rights of women to have an abortion and to legalising same-sex marriages, positions that are expected to antagonise many voters, including a large gay community, in this very liberal state.

Similarly, it seems that the Republicans, whose members have led the vocal campaign against illegal immigrants, will have major problems gaining the support of Hispanics, the largest growing demographic group in California and other large states.

So while there is no doubt that many voters are disappointed with Mr Obama and the Democrats, it seems that the Republicans could have major problems taking advantage of that, demonstrating once again that they - and not the Democrats - may be their worst enemy.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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