Saturday, June 12, 2010

Gulf Oil Disaster: A Teachable Moment (With Update)

In an earlier post, I briefly touched on something in the news that easily justifies its own entry. I speak, of course, of the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. This story has dominated the news for weeks, will continue to do so, and justifiably so. The effects of this horror will be with us for years, and will have far-reaching economic, social and political impact. My purpose in writing is not, however, to address the merits of this issue, except to the extent they pertain to the electoral consequences of it. Other people have covered the merits far better than I can hope to.

What I do want to do is take a look at what is going to be the dominant news story across Alabama well into the fall, when low-engagement voters (who are the vast majority) will begin to formulate their political preferences. This is a matter on which almost all voters will have some information, and some opinion. What information and opinion they have may be critical to the results of the 2010 elections. As I noted in an earlier post, the two counties on Mobile Bay and the coast combined for 11.2% of the statewide gubernatorial vote, and gave Riley 56.8% of their vote, in his 2002 campaign. Since that election was a virtual tie, any issue that can erode (or increase) the Republican take in those counties has significant st
atewide impact. But it would be wrong to limit the political analysis of this issue to the coastal counties. Perceptions of the political parties, candidates, and officeholders statewide will be effected by voters' responses to the disaster, even as national perceptions of Bush were (unfavorably) altered by his response to Katrina. One additional fact that should not be overlooked is that the oil disaster is not limited to the Alabama coast, and the thousands of upper-income Alabamians - hence Republican leaners - who own condos along the Florida Panhandle, will feel as much direct economic impact as many residents of Mobile and Baldwin Counties. Any vote we take out of that cohort is carved from the heart of the elephant.

Any Democratic candidate, party official, or campaign staffer who isn't thinking daily about this issue, and how to seize it, needs to be replaced, shot, or both. The fact that this issue, properly handled, redounds to the significant advantage of the basic Democratic message of intelligent, reasoned, cost-effective popular control of corporate excess makes it all the more unforgivable for it to be ignored.

What makes it criminally negligent to neglect this issue is that the Republicans are already angling to make it "Obama's Katrina." As with other issues that have killed us in the past - guns, abortion, gay rights, terrorism - to let the Republicans define it is to let them win it. If we Democrats have the wit to use this opportunity to remind voters that the Gulf disaster is a consequence of permissive drilling permitting and reduced environmental oversight that can be traced back to the Bush Administration and its GOP Congress, we will win. If we let them make Obama's response the issue - however reasonable that response may be - we will lose thousands of votes we can't afford.

Lest I sound like a constant scold, a well-researched, intuitively excellent item went up on the Democratic Party website in the immediate aftermath of the initial rig explosion. That this item hit a Republican nerve is evident from this squeal by the King Pig himself. Yeah, Mike, let's not talk about whose fault this is - let's just hold hands and pray for the sea turtles.

What we need now is some follow-up, and the sort of unrelenting attack on this issue that has historically been a Republican tactic. Some specific ideas come readily to mind:

  • Paid media like this powerful ad rolled out against Luther Strange in the Republican primary. Hopefully, Stan Pate still has a few hundred thousand bucks with which to continue his rage, and oil lobbyist Luther Strange is the sharp edge of the stake to be driven through the Republican heart on the oil issue. But we can't count on Mr. Pate to go it alone, and it is beyond me why groups interested in electing Democratic judges - are you listening, Alabama Association for Justice?? - aren't on the air with ads reminding voters of the Republican Supreme Court's Exxon opinions. I know the election is not next week, but voters' initial impressions will be hard to change if their first association of oil is with Obama.
  • Make oil issues part of opposition research and platform formulation. Not a lot of Alabama legislative issues in the last few terms have dealt directly with oil pollution issues. One exception is HB113 (2010), which was introduced by Republican Spencer Collier to allocate funds for spill mitigation. The voting record, personal history, and contributions record of any opponent should be scoured for oil ties.
  • Oil needs to be in the script for all canvassers and phone bankers working in Mobile and Baldwin Counties. Period. Those canvassers and callers need to be well-briefed on the Republican oil record.
  • It goes without saying, every candidate needs to be ready with a response on this issue in any forum - debate, canvass, interview, call-in - where he or she might encounter it.
Some aspects of Gulf drilling are beyond the authority of state government to regulate. But voters frequently don't make those subtle distinctions, and those who do, expect the state to do what it can. There is political gold to be mined (I resisted likening it to striking oil) in this issue for local, state and Federal candidates. Bush and the Republicans politicized and gutted FEMA, which contributed in large part to the government's incompetent response to Katrina. We Democrats used that GOP blunder to good effect in the 2006 elections, and have no reason to apologize for doing so. The only apology we would owe would be to Alabama's unemployed shrimpers, fishermen, and coastal hospitality workers, if we didn't take this opportunity to remind voters why our policies will make it less likely they will be facing this problem again in 2020.

UPDATE: I had to - HAD TO - add this cartoon when I saw it. Hat tip to Tami Barnes for posting it to Facebook!


  1. Thanks, Publius IX!!! Glad you liked it!
    And thanks for the credit!
    Tami Barnes

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