Spill brings opportunity

In politics, outside events are often unwelcome, but as a calamitous oil spill spreads through the Gulf of Mexico, beleaguered Democrats hear the sound of opportunity knocking.

With scientists predicting that the spill could cause decades of damage to the environment and decimate the fishing industry in a region already battered by economic hardship, Congressional Democrats have found the ultimate change of subject from unpopular health care reform and stimulus programs, deficits and debt, government bailouts, and joblessness. Couple the oil drilling disaster with a Supreme Court decision to open the floodgates of corporate spending in elections, and new Wall Street regulations supported by two-thirds of the country, and Democrats just may have stumbled upon a game changer.

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Hearings scheduled in the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Energy Committee will undoubtedly raise questions about the regulation and oversight of drilling that led to the April 20th accident, about whether this was a preventable tragedy, and why other countries like Norway have additional valves attached to blowout preventers meant to prevent leaks on oil rigs that, for some reason, aren't required in the United States. Then there is cost. British Petroleum's liability currently includes clean up, but any damages beyond that are capped at $75 million. New legislation, titled the “Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act,” sponsored by New Jersey Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Frank Lautenberg, along with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) would increase liability from to $10 billion. Democrats see a two-fer here – please their own voters by taking Big Oil to task, while fighting against bailouts and taking up the plight of small businesses in the South, which are made up almost entirely of Republican voters.

“We're glad that the costs for the oil clean up will be covered, but that's little consolation to the small businesses, fisheries and local governments that will be left to clean up the economic devastation that somebody else caused,” Menendez said upon introducing his bill.

Meanwhile, Democrats are working to pass new regulations for the financial services industry that aren't likely to prevent future crises or the bailouts that inevitably follow. The final product hardly matters since the issue of what Democrats have re-named “Wall Street Reform” is so popular. And now that the Republicans are no longer filibustering the bill into the headlines, starting today the party is holding “Wall Street Action” events in hopes that the ghastly news from the Gulf and a failed terrorist attack don't wipe reform off the media radar screen.

Trying to avoid a referendum on President Obama and a Democratic majority, Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine unveiled the “Results Party” message last week in which he gave his party credit for solving the nation's toughest problems and moving the economy from recession to recovery. Kaine even noted that the stock market is up thousands of points from the time Obama took office. Another two-fer, since Democrats are also simultaneously excoriating Wall Street on the Senate floor, day in and day out.

Indeed, the populist bandwagon is hard to resist. In response to the Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which struck down restrictions on corporations and unions airing political ads, Democrats have introduced strict new disclosure requirements they hope to pass before this fall's elections. The Chamber of Commerce is fighting it hard.

Democrats are holding out hope that the public will change their minds about them before November. It's a long shot. But if somehow Democrats can convince an angry public that Republicans are working hard to protect their corporate cronies and funders on Wall Street, in health insurance companies, and in Big Oil, things won't look as bad for Democrats as they do now.