If Rep. Joe L. Barton's apology to BP's Tony Hayward and his criticism of the $20 billion escrow fund to pay for damages caused by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as a "shakedown" by the White House for which he was "ashamed" were truly a slip of the tongue — or even the views of some lone-wolf Republican — the damage done to the GOP would be modest at best.
But here it is a week and a half after the infamous apology by the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and — thanks in no small part to the decision of House GOP leadership to keep him in that role — the wellspring of public outrage continues to overflow.
What makes the incident such a touchstone is not that Mr. Barton's opinions ran counter to mainstream Republican thought on big business versus big government but that they hewed so closely. As White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has observed, it gives the Democrats a theme for the fall: This is the philosophy by which Republicans govern.
The one thing that every national crisis in recent years appears to have in common is a failure of the federal government's regulatory function. Yet Republicans stick to their story that government is always the problem and the private sector never is. Thus, they can vote for a Wall Street bailout under George W. Bush but against financial industry reforms under Barack Obama.
Nor is Mr. Barton the only member of his party sticking up for the rights of wealthy foreign companies to plunder the environment without government interference. The head of the Republican Study Committee, which is said to represent a majority of House Republicans, issued a statement that described the BP fund as an example of "Chicago-style shakedown politics."
Government-bashing has been a staple of right-wing ideology for, well, ever, but listening to the party's anti-regulatory fervor in the wake of a major financial crisis and the nation's worst-ever environmental disaster is more than a little frightening. There are times when the citizens of this country expect government to protect their interests.
Americans may be concerned about runaway government spending, but the BP spill has the public scared of reckless corporate behavior, too. It's one thing to unfairly demonize corporations, it's quite another to hold them accountable when they do actually behave like demons, such as when spewing millions of gallons of toxic material into the Gulf of Mexico.
Responsible Republicans ought to stand up and admit that the world is more complicated than the "government bad, private sector good" mentality suggests. It won't be easy. Mr. Barton has already drawn support from such party darlings as Minnesota's Rep. Michele Bachmann and talk show host Rush Limbaugh. They think Mr. Barton did good.
GOP leadership may regard the matter as closed, but Democrats are busy producing ads to capitalize on the congressman's self-destructive apology. Alleged advocating for big oil has already popped up in Maryland's gubernatorial race. Expect to hear it a lot in the closely-watched 1st Congressional District where Sen. Andy Harris, the likely Republican nominee, has demonstrated a consistently dismal record on the environment. The issue won't go away because Mr. Barton's actions were no anomaly.