Oil Regulation and Why Obama and Many Progressives Need to Appreciate the Value of Losing

President Obama has been arguing that if he had tried to regulate the oil industry before the BP disaster, it would have gone nowhere and Republicans would have pissed and moaned about oppressive regulations:

In an interview with POLITICO, the president said: "I think it's fair to say, if six months ago, before this spill had happened, I had gone up to Congress and I had said we need to crack down a lot harder on oil companies and we need to spend more money on technology to respond in case of a catastrophic spill, there are folks up there, who will not be named, who would have said this is classic, big-government overregulation and wasteful spending."

Steve Benen agrees:

And can anyone seriously disagree with his analysis? Imagine if, before the April 20 explosion, the White House had announced its desire to expand government regulation of the oil industry, impose new safety and emergency mandates, and spend taxpayer money on equipment and technology. Is there any doubt what we'd hear from Republicans, their lobbyist allies, and the media that's been trained to be on the lookout for "big government"?

But these comments illustrate perfectly why the Democrats and 'progressives' are always playing catch up, why they are always one step behind.

Imagine if one year ago, Obama had proposed strict drilling regulations*. He's probably right: the legislative effort would have gone nowhere.

At that time.

But, in this scenario, he would have had the perfect opportunity--or crisis--to push this legislation. Not only that, he and other Democrats, rather than arguing "Republicans would have opposed this", could be concretely claiming "Republicans did oppose this." He could have said, "If they had listened to Democrats, we probably wouldn't be in this mess."

Instead, polling now suggests Obama owns this shit.

This is something that the too-smart-for-their-own-good Democratic political operatives and their progressive apologists always fail to understand: you have to create your own opportunities for good politics. If you think a policy is a good one, that many people will like the outcome, then fight for it. If the policy is truly needed and you lose, don't worry, circumstances will eventually come around to support your position. And now you've laid the groundwork and established a good narrative (TEH EVUL OBSTRUKSHUNITZ!!), both of which are needed to successfully pass the legislation.

This is a self-inflicted wound, and one most professional Democrats don't even realize has happened.

*It's not clear to me that Obama actually gives a shit about this issue, but that's what consistently repudiating your own party's rank-and-file will get you, I suppose.


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No, No, No! You don't want Democrats standing up and fighting for what is right. Otherwise, the public may get a feel for what the Democratic party actually stands for.

Can't have that! Can't look angry or unreasonable either. Best to just sulk in the corner and not even try. Save your powder til it's really needed.


By Gingerbaker (not verified) on 17 Jun 2010 #permalink

While I completely agree with your main point, Mike, it seems pretty clear to me that the reason nobody was pushing sweeping reform of deep sea drilling regulations last year is that nobody knew we had this big of a problem. It just wasn't on anybody's radar as a thing to worry about, and the fact that the entirety of MMS apparently had been bought off by hookers and blow from the oil companies certainly didn't help to raise the issue to anybody who might have been able to do anything about it.

Seems like a gamble, though: had obama tried to push through such things six months ago, and then this oil spill happened, it would indeed be a victory. But had the BP oil spill *not* happened, it would have entered public cosnciousness as a coup for the republicans -- their party line of government overreach would stand uncontested.

I'm not a gambling man to begin with, but I can appreciate that some gambles are worth taking. But I'm not sure I'd be comfortable with a gamble where I'm banking *on* a disaster like the BP spill.

Mike: "But, in this scenario, he would have had the perfect opportunity--or crisis--to push this legislation. Not only that, he and other Democrats, rather than arguing "Republicans would have opposed this", could be concretely claiming "Republicans did oppose this." He could have said, "If they had listened to Democrats, we probably wouldn't be in this mess."

"Instead, polling now suggests Obama owns this shit."

Wisdom! :)

Ross: "Seems like a gamble, though"

That's true, too. :)

Which underscores the value of rhetoric. The gamble comes from trying to push legislation. If the Dems had shown concern for the problem and introduced bills in Congress, even if the bills did not get out of committee, then they would have gotten the Reps on record as opposing what needed to be done.

We face a similar problem with unemployment now. We are in a fix that was predicted a couple of years ago, and it is a ***good bet*** that things will get worse on that front in the coming years. (Even if unemployment comes down, the results of long term high unemployment will add up.) But the Dems have not pushed vigorously enough to make the Reps own the problem next year or the year after. Instead, having opposed any serious attempt to combat unemployment, the Reps will be able to blame Obama for continuing unemployment.

Enforcing existing regulations would have been a start. Rejecting boilerplate meaningless disaster plans would have been good. Making the oil companies take action when a spill preparedness test in 2008 showed them completely unready, staff untrained, equipment not available. Not to mention the complete shambles at MMS. Instead the administration continued to issue safety waivers to oil companies. And just a few weeks before the spill called for opening up more of the coast to drilling lets not forget.

Sad to say the Obama administration has had no interest in regulating and now is just reacting to public opinion. Anyone hoping for leadership from this administration is deluding themselves. We will get action when we organize political pressure to force it and not a day sooner. Don't complain, organize!

By ScottFree (not verified) on 17 Jun 2010 #permalink

Well, *I've* been saying they'd have gone after his head had he done anything sooner, but you're right: one has to stand up sometime. It's an academic disease I rail about: people tend to say "that will never fly" before they try it, and are so generally over-timid.

I disagree, though, with the comment that we didn't know it was that big of a problem. Perhaps living in oil country I have more contact with these things than the average person, but it's known and should have been paid attention to. (Although of course there is Cheney the Protector, helping to prevent that, along with quite a few Senators and such.)