General Stanley McChrystal’s tone- deaf performance in Rolling Stone deserves a standing ovation from at least one Washington insider: Texas Republican Representative Joe “I’m-Sorry-BP-No-I’m-Not” Barton.
Only Tony Hayward, fresh off his yacht, might be more grateful to the general and Lady Gaga for revealing themselves in the magazine.
Adults in Washington, you see, are like children playing soccer: we chase the moving ball, fail to hold our positions and leave the goal unattended. McChrystal’s insubordination was so juicy that it relegated to the dustbin of old news the fact that Republicans, en masse, had sided with BP Plc (BP/) over victims in the Gulf.
In this remarkable feat, Republicans also had help from the Obama White House, which was all too ready to play a supporting role in the Kabuki theater that followed Barton’s remarks.
You would expect Republicans to want to isolate Barton as an outlier after he openly donned his oil company hat at an Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing to proclaim himself “ashamed” that a White House “shakedown” had forced the oil company to create a $20 billion victim-compensation fund. You wouldn’t expect Democrats to let Republicans get away with denying that a good chunk of their caucus wears the same hat.
Republicans don’t empathize with BP in public, with the cameras rolling. But oh, do they ever behind closed doors, where at least some of them work to keep BP’s liability capped at $75 million and ascribe to what Barton said at the hearing.
Don’t Mind Us
Using Barton’s comment as their shield, Republicans managed to divert attention from a prepared statement issued just one day earlier expressing the sentiment of their 115-plus-member Republican Study Committee -- a majority, in other words, of the House GOP. The June 16 statement by Representative Tom Price, chairman of the committee -- which bills itself as “an independent research arm for Republicans” -- called the fund to compensate victims in the Gulf a “Chicago-style political shakedown.”
How, exactly, does that differ from what Barton spouted on June 17?
Perhaps we could ask House Minority Whip Eric Cantor and House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence. The two, both listed as members of the Republican Study Committee, joined House Minority Leader John Boehner in a statement criticizing Barton hours after his “shakedown” comment.
According to a tick-tock fed to reporters to chronicle Barton’s trip to the woodshed, Boehner and Cantor summoned Barton to a cubbyhole off the House floor and told him, “Apologize, immediately. Or you will lose your position, immediately.”
Also in on the mysterious distinction between “shakedown” and “shakedown” is Florida Representative Jeff Miller. His name, too, appears on the Republican Study Committee’s roster. Yet he called for Barton to step down as the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee for remarks that were “out of touch with this tragedy.”
Amazingly, nobody at the White House jumped on the Republican Study Committee’s expression of sympathy for BP. Republicans, of course, were all too happy to make Barton the single, solitary fall guy. They were all too lucky to have Rahm Emanuel playing along.
By piling on Barton, the White House chief of staff bought into the Republican script that the Texas Republican was a lone ranger expressing outrageous sentiments, rather than the canary in the mine signaling a toxic environment.
In Washington, going to the woodshed isn’t necessarily a terrible thing; often it’s an alternative to real punishment. The person who made the woodshed famous -- Ronald Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, who used the term for the chewing-out he received after pulling back the curtain on budget shenanigans -- kept his job, after all.
Likewise, Barton, fresh from the woodshed, is keeping his powerful post on Energy and Commerce. He should also demand a thank-you note from his 114 colleagues on the Republican Study Committee. And perhaps write one to a certain general who went gaga.
(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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