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Democrats make hay -- unapologetically -- about Rep. Joe Barton and his BP apology

June 23, 2010 |  7:16 pm

Joe Barton 
For weeks, President Obama has been battered for his handling of the gulf oil spill, which tarred his reputation for competence and weighed on Democrats already facing the prospect of big losses in a tough election year.

So with the eagerness of a drowning man, party strategists have seized on Joe Barton and his BP apology — and the amen chorus from some Republicans and right-wing commentators — to present a case that may be summed up thusly: You may hate Democrats, but Republicans are even worse.  (Remember: It’s an angry environment, so you won’t get far peddling sunshine and lollypops.)

Of course, no thoughtful Democrat says that out loud. But that’s what they mean when they talk about the midterm vote being a choice, between D’s and R’s, and not a referendum, as in yay or nay on Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, et al.BP

Appearing Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel put it this way: “Do you think BP is the aggrieved party? Do you think that Wall Street should be left alone and not have any reforms? Elections are about choices. Those are what is fundamental. There is a difference in our philosophies.”

The national Democratic Party stated the matter more succinctly in a cable TV ad that began airing Tuesday: “Apologizing to Big Oil? This is how Republicans would govern.”

So the Democrats' strategy — please, keep reading, even if this sounds familiar — is to paint the GOP as the party of Big Business and Big Oil.

The good thing, from the Democrats' perspective, is that argument plays directly into what many voters already believe about Republicans. “This is just one more piece of evidence, one more thread in the tapestry, one more brick in that wall,” said Mark Mellman, a leading Democratic pollster.

The bad thing, from the Democrats' perspective, is that ...

... even though many voters believe the Republican Party is overly beholden to business interests — nothing new there — they still want to vote the Democrats out.

Thus, it seems unlikely that Barton’s apology, which he retracted under pressure from House GOP leaders, will have much effect on the midterm elections — even if seconded by Republican Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Steve King of Iowa; even if Republican candidates from Maine to California are asked, as several have been, whether they agree or disagree with the gentleman from Texas.

(Yes, as Emanuel and other Democrats point out, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia used the exact same “shakedown” language as Barton in a statement issued by the Republican Study Committee, a House policy group. But, really, who outside Georgia or the Washington Beltway has ever heard of Price or the Republican Study Committee?)

That said, there’s no down side in Democrats using the club Barton handed them to beat Republicans about the head.

“If you’re a Democratic message person, a consultant, an officeholder, you don’t quietly go off to the slaughter,” said nonpartisan election handicapper Stuart Rothenberg. “You try to change the discussion, try to find the issue that can redefine what the election’s about.”

But, he added, “It’s awfully hard.”

As for Barton, Republicans may wish to send him on a fact-finding mission to some far-off place for the rest of the election season. Just hours after apologizing Wednesday to GOP colleagues for the trouble he caused — and averting demotion from his senior post on the House Energy and Commerce Committee — a tweet emanated from Barton’s office. It linked to an article in the conservative American Spectator, headlined, “Joe Barton was right.”

The Democrats, naturally, seized on the posting to question the sincerity of Barton’s apology and launch a new flurry of attacks.

A Barton staffer took the blame for the offending missive, saying he posted the link and Barton was unaware of the offending tweet, which vanished soon after setting off the latest hullabaloo.

-- Mark Z. Barabak

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Photos: Barton. Credit: EPA. BP's London headquarters. Credit: Getty Images.