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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Let the Oil Slinging Begin

Air Date: Week of

Congressman Joe Barton (R-Texas) delivered the apology that launched a thousand condemnations-- and boosted a few Democratic campaigns. (Courtesy of Republican Conference)

The Gulf oil spill isn't just a massive environmental and economic disaster; it's also providing an ongoing flow of material for political spinmeisters. Oil is washing up in political races from Florida to Missouri, and is sullying Republicans and Democrats alike. Host Jeff Young talks with Washington correspondent Mitra Taj about how both parties are playing the spill.


YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios in Somerville MA this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young. Well, BP might finally have a handle on the flow of oil into the Gulf, but that hasn’t kept the oil from spilling over into politics. Mid term elections are approaching…Control of Congress is on the line… and the oil disaster is quickly becoming a campaign issue, thanks partly to this one moment:

BARTON: I apologize.

YOUNG: When Texas Republican Congressman Joe Barton apologized to BP CEO Tony Hayward for the administration’s efforts to make the company pay for damages. Democrats quickly seized the political moment. And now, where we once had mud slinging in elections, we have oil slinging. Living On Earth’s Mitra Taj is on Capitol Hill tracking how the spill is being spun in the campaigns. Hello Mitra!

TAJ: Hi Jeff!

YOUNG: In what races do you see this issue coming up?

TAJ: Well, it’s been interesting. You’d expect the spill to be a big issue in Gulf states like Louisiana… where Republican Senator David Vitter is being accused of being too friendly with the oil industry…or in Florida… where Governor Charlie Crist recently changed his mind and is opposing offshore drilling in his run for the Senate… But the oil spill is surfacing even in races hundreds of miles from the Gulf Coast.

YOUNG: Like where?

TAJ: Well, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Missouri… Democrats are trying hard to paint the Republican Party as representing oil interests, and some have taken to calling the GOP the BOP, or Big Oil Party.

YOUNG: Uh huh, and I saw the Democratic National Committee has this new website they call BP Republicans.

TAJ: Right, and Joe Barton’s apology to Tony Hayward is still a favorite target for Democrats. This is President Obama invoking it at a campaign event in Missouri.

OBAMA: Noooo. He didn’t say that. But he did. Because they don’t think in terms of representing ordinary folks, that’s not their orientation. So, that’s the choice that we face in this election.

YOUNG: So, the president is clearly trying to get some mileage out of that. Who was he campaigning for there?

In Pennsylvania, the Democratic Senate candidate has attacked his Republican opponent Pat Toomey's support for oil drilling in the Great Lakes and his lack of criticism of Congressman Joe Barton. (Courtesy of Pat Toomey)

TAJ: That was a stump speech for Democrat Robin Carnahan. She’s up against Congressman Roy Blunt for the Missouri Senate seat.


And she’s launched some controversial ads against him…


YOUNG: Whoa, that sounds creepy.


TAJ: Yeah, the ad mimics the post-apocalyptic horror movie “28 Days Later…” and you see images of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the cleanup, and catch glimpses of her Republican opponent making a speech, which kind of leaves viewers with the impression that he doesn’t want BP to pay for the spill….

YOUNG: And is that accurate charge against Congressman Blunt?

TAJ: No. The website FactCheck dot org concluded that it doesn’t represent his views at all, but Carnahan’s campaign still points to Blunt’s campaign contributions from oil and gas. In the past year those added up to $130 thousand dollars, more than any other member of the House Energy committee. Even more than Barton.

YOUNG: So, that’s what the Democrats are doing with this. How are Republicans handling the spill?

TAJ: Well, they do like to point out that candidate Obama took more money from BP than any other candidate last time around. And they want to talk about oil too- they just want to tell a different story with it. They say the administration hasn’t done enough to respond to the spill. The Republican National Committee recently came out with an oil spill website of its own: “Play Golf or Save the Gulf.” If you go to it you see a picture of the president on a golf course, and you’re invited to build your own top five lists of reasons why you should be angry with the president…

YOUNG: And, are Republican candidates picking up on those talking points?

TAJ: Yeah. In Florida, the Republican’s pick for Senate, Marco Rubio, was recently quoted saying the administration is guilty of “insanity” and “incompetence” in responding to the oil spill. And, many Republicans have tried to distance themselves from Representative Barton’s apology, but others are still openly critical of the pressure the administration has been putting on BP. Like in Kentucky, Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul said it’s “un-American,” and Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had this to say as he was campaigning for Congressional Candidate Brad Zaun in Iowa:

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he would fire Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for saying he'll put his boot on the neck of BP until the spill is cleaned up. (Courtesy of Department of Interior)

GINGRICH: When the Secretary of the Interior said that they are going to put their boot on the neck of BP, I frankly thought he should be forced to resign that day… because Americans [applause]. Any government official who believes they can put their boot on one neck believes they can put their boot on your neck, and that is fundamentally antithetical to the American model.

YOUNG: Hmm. So what do you think, Mitra, is any of this gaining traction with voters? Is this going to make a difference in the mid-term elections?

TAJ: You know, it’s really hard to say. I think a lot depends on just how the cleanup goes and whether or not this will still be making headlines when elections really get started in the fall. I called up political strategist Dan Gerstein to see what he thinks. He worked on Joe Lieberman’s successful Senate run as Independent in 2006.

GERSTEIN: I don’t think it’s a win for anyone in large part just because no one has looked good. The government has not responded well, at least that’s the way the public perceives it, and there’s no vindication certainly for the Republican anti-regulatory, anti governmental mode these days.

TAJ: Gerstein says that the spill probably won’t be a game changer in politics or policy. But I think, clearly, Democrats want to make Republican ties to oil money toxic, and I think Republicans are trying hard show that the Obama administration came up short in its response to the spill. So, it will be interesting to see what actually happens in November.

YOUNG: Mitra Taj, thanks very much.

TAJ: Thank you Jeff.



Click here to watch Robin Carnahan's campaign ads on Roy Blunt's oil position.

Read FactCheck.org's assesment of the advertisements.

Check out the RNC's Golf or Gulf page.

DNC's BP Republican site


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