Maybe, we can all agree on this one point: A country’s political system isn’t working quite right if real world disasters that could have been avoided result in the people who clamored for even more disastrous policies gaining more power. Does that sound reasonable?
OK, then. So if that’s the case, you’ll know our political system is broken if the nation’s worst oil spill begets ... more elected leaders who support offshore oil drilling. Uh-oh.
Strange as it may seem, the “drill, baby, drill” crowd is set to strengthen its hand in Congress.
To be sure, things were trending that way before the Gulf spill. The strongest anti-environmental voices of the Republican Party have been on the ascendency, knocking off “moderate” Republicans all spring. In Kentucky, Libertarian Rand Paul -- who recently said of the Gulf disaster, “sometimes accidents happen” -- was well on his way to winning the GOP primary for the Senate. In Pennsylvania, anti-regulatory darling Pat Toomey -- the guy who chased Sen. Arlen Specter out of the GOP -- had the Republican primary pretty much to himself and stands a good chance at winning the General Election. And polls all year have shown conservative Republican gains of five to 10 seats in the Senate, along with 25-50 in the House.
So it’s not exactly because of Deepwater Horizon that the “drill, baby, drill” crowd is primed for gains. It’s more like in spite of it.
Meanwhile, it’s not exactly a surprise that support among ordinary people for offshore drilling is dropping, although I’ve got to admit that the plunge isn’t as drastic as I thought it would be. According to CBS polling, the percentage of people who “favor” offshore drilling fell from 62 percent around the time of John McCain’s “drill, baby, drill” 2008 Republican National Convention to 45 percent right after the Gulf Coast spill.
What’s more dramatic is the outrage many voters are expressing toward BP. A couple of years ago, the oil company uploaded cute ads on YouTube showing how clean and “beyond petroleum” its gas stations were. Check out the angry comments on that PR site now. My editor doesn’t allow me to use some of the words used there to describe BP; suffice it to note that the comments are a great example of social media marketing backfiring.
The public outrage surely will point the ship of state away from more oil rigs. Right? Well, that’s the way most politicians are talking right now, while the Gulf spill dominates the headlines. After all, an interminable ecological disaster that kills 11 people and about that many coastal economies is good enough evidence for voters that all those chants of “drill, baby, drill” were just plain stupid.
President Obama, who two weeks before the spill offered the bone-headed compromise of allowing more deepwater oil drilling off the Atlantic, Gulf and Arctic coasts, has placed a moratorium on moving forward with that drilling -- for now.
But what about next year in Congress, when it really counts? What about when stronger regulations on the oil industry come before the new lawmakers? Or when Democrats are tempted to barter oil drilling for climate change legislation?
To answer those kinds of questions, you’ve got to try figure out what all these politicians are really thinking. What, for example, is going through the mind of Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana)? Vitter was an outspoken supporter of the oil industry -- until the spill that happened to coincide with his election campaign.
If you’re thinking that Vitter’s prior support for offshore drilling had anything to do with the $783,835 in campaign contributions he’s received from the oil gas industry, then shame on you! This is an honorable United States senator.
Speaking of honor, Vitter’s most famous nationally for, ahem, doing business with prostitution rings. But he still has support from Christian conservatives, which tells you a bit about the capacity of Louisiana voters to exhibit cognitive dissonance.
Vitter’s usually big on getting government out of our lives, but since the spill he’s become concerned that federal regulators were too lax on the oil industry.
But what’s his position on actually placing a moratorium on deepwater drilling until the cause of the disaster is known? Oh, n-o-o-o! That would be a bad idea. "By the same token, after every plane crash, you and I should both oppose plane travel," Vitter told CNN the other day.
For some reason, I don’t think Vitter will be real tough on the oil industry once he’s re-elected. So far, every poll has shown him to be at least 16 points ahead of U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, his Democratic rival.
Look, we all know politics in Louisiana is crazy. So let’s travel around the Gulf to a place where the politics is perfectly sane, like, say ... Florida. Offshore drilling used to be the third rail of Florida politics. Surely Floridians, whose opposition to offshore drilling appeared to be waning until this spring’s spill, will politically punish those who were advocating more drilling off the Florida coastline.
Not so fast. This year, pro-drilling Senate candidate Marco Rubio is in a three-way race against two anti-drilling opponents: Charlie Crist, the moderate current governor who’s now running as an independent because it looked as if he’d lose to Rubio in the Republican primary; and Rep. Kendall Meek, the likely Democratic nominee who’s running a distant third in polls on the General Election.
Rubio comes down on conservative side of just about every issue -- even drilling. What a coincidence. Before the spill, he cut this video for Newt Gingrich’s campaign to “Drill now. Drill here. Pay less.”
Not everyone will be convinced that Rubio has suddenly taken to caring about the environment. Then again, he doesn’t need to convince everyone. In a three-way race, Rubio could win merely by hanging on to the increasingly doctrinaire Republican base, and by not sounding too out-of-step with average people.
In polls, he’s running neck-and-neck with Crist, who’s probably polling better than he’ll finish simply because he’s better known right now than the other two candidates.
If the voters in two states that will feel the effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill aren’t into throwing the bums out who advocated policies that would give an even freer hand to oil companies, then it seems unlikely that voters in other states will make those politicians pay.