By Russell Berman - 06/19/10 10:00 AM EDT
Democrats immediately seized on Rep. Joe Barton’s (R-Texas) apology to BP as a political gaffe of epic proportions. Now, the question is, can they make voters remember it in November?
In the first 24 hours after the Texas congressman sent jaws dropping with his defense of the oil giant and accusations of a Obama administration “shakedown,” Democrats from the White House to the party campaign committees unleashed a full-scale assault.
At the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), strategists blasted out fundraising solicitations and searched for vulnerable GOP candidates to hang Barton’s comments around like a 50-pound weight. The fund-raising e-mail warned donors that “if the GOP wins back the House, Barton is the guy who could be in charge of regulating the oil industry.” Officials said the first national television ad featuring Barton would run on cable stations as soon as this weekend.
In an election season where Democrats across the country are playing defense, the Barton comments offered the party a prime opportunity to press their favorite line of attack against Republicans – that the GOP is a defender of corporate interests like Wall Street and Big Oil, while Democrats fight for Mail Street.
“Barton’s comments highlighted a Republican culture of apologizing for the oil industry that was evident in their belief that holding BP accountable is a ‘shakedown,’ their defense of limiting liability for oil companies which cause this kind of devastating damage and their vehement opposition to the president’s call to ensure we are never put in the position of being reliant on oil and oil companies ever again,” a spokesman for the DNC, Hari Sevugan, said.
"It's not the end of this," pledged DCCC chairman Rep. Chris Van Hollen, appearing on ABC's "Top Line."
Another Democratic strategist put it simply: “It just crystallized our argument.”
Yet the party has tried this before, to mixed success.
When Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) yelled “you lie” at President Barack Obama during his September address to Congress on healthcare, Democrats pounced, attempting to make Wilson a symbol of Republican obstructionism and incivility. The effort put Wilson on the national map and gave a modest boost to his congressional opponent, but it did little to change the political dynamic around healthcare. (Barton’s heavily Republican seat appears to be even safer; his Democratic challenger, David Cozad, told The Hill that his campaign consists of “a camera [and] two or three staffers.”)
Republican leaders have also returned to the Wilson playbook, forcing an immediate apology from Barton as they did with the South Carolina lawmaker. In Barton’s case, Republicans took an even firmer stand, suggesting that his post on the Energy and Commerce Committee could be in jeopardy.
Democrats have mounted what a strategist characterized as a “multi-pronged” effort to keep the Barton story alive, despite his abject – if forced – apology and retraction.
The party has targeted the 114 members of the Republican Study Committee, the conservative policy arm of the House GOP that also referred to the $20 billion escrow account the White House demanded from BP as a “shakedown.” The DCCC sent out a release targeting 18 GOP lawmakers and congressional candidates, asking them if they “stand with BP or the American people.” The committee also started a petition to denounce Barton’s apology and sent a fund-raising pitch to pay for ads on his comments.
The first ad will run as early as this weekend, officials said. It features Barton’s apology and a narrator’s voice: “Tell Republicans: Stop apologizing to Big Oil.”
Having decided against trying to defend Barton, Republicans were left to hope the issue fades away in a news cycle that shifts by the hour, or that Democrats overreach.
“Democrats can attempt to distract from the facts, but ultimately the 2010 election will be a referendum on President Obama, the Pelosi-led Congress and their culture of incompetence that has resulted in the mismanagement of the federal bureaucracy, the economy, and the ballooning deficit,” a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, Ken Spain, said in a statement.
-- Shane D’Aprile contributed to this article