As I read about President Obama's press conference yesterday addressing the government's plans for the cleanup of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I was reminded of two of the major ills affecting our modern democracy.
The first has to do with the political blame game. For the first 16 months, the Republicans (aided by their loyal ally, the right-wing propaganda machine) have engaged in a cynical, anti-patriotic campaign to demonize the president and his policies through lies. (To be clear, opposing the president is not, in itself, unpatriotic. Honest opposition to work towards the best policy for all Americans is patriotic. But, in this case, the GOP was looking out for its own political fortunes ahead of the best interests of the country, and was dishonest in its approach.) What made this plan of action particularly disturbing is that not only was Obama tasked with trying to address major problems he inherited when he assumed office (a failing financial system and economy, two wars, a massive deficit, etc.), but these problems were created in large part by an incompetent and reckless Republican president, aided and abetted by a capitulating Republican-controlled congress.
So, all for political gain, the Republicans engaged in more than a year of lies and distortions, from creating "death panels" to trying to convince the American people that the president was an extremist, a socialist on the fringes of American political ideology, while offering no solutions to address the existing overwhelming problems (no, more tax cuts for the rich will not help create jobs). That doesn't even include the Tea Party types who told the world, often via complimentary right wing media, that the president was a Hitler-like, Communist/Nazi Kenyan Muslim seeking to destroy the United States of America from within.
The GOP strategy might be successful in November, but when a real tragedy happens, like the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the hypocrisy of this kind of approach becomes apparent. Many of the same right-wingers who tell tall tales of Obama wanting to initiate a government takeover of American industry now criticize the president for not pushing aside BP and overseeing the efforts to stop the flow of oil flooding the gulf. Many of the same conservatives who chanted "Drill baby, drill" are now using the BP oil spill to score political points, accusing the president of Katrina-like incompetence.
(As an aside: It is sad our mainstream news system has become so ineffectual that nobody seems able to point out the simple factual differences between the BP oil disaster and Hurricane Katrina. Katrina was an act of nature with no responsible party -- although the government did nothing in advance to ensure the levees could handle the flooding, and what was required -- search and rescue, humanitarian aid and rebuilding -- was firmly under the traditional banner of government action. But Bush did next to nothing. Meanwhile, the BP oil disaster was caused by a corporate entity, who bears the responsibility of addressing the situation, and the action that needs to be taken is of a technological and industry-specific nature not generally thought of as being within the expertise of the government. I guess it's easier for ratings-seeking news outlets to simply play up the political rhetoric, since, they believe, conflict sells. To be clear, I'm not saying that the Obama administration's response to the BP oil disaster was unassailable. But it would be hard for any objective party to compare the government's responsibility and failures in the two situations and say they were in any way equivalent.)
Put another way, if the president had stepped in a few days after the explosion and announced that the government was leading the operation to stop the flow of oil, Republicans would have undoubtedly screamed "Another government takeover!" to anyone who would listen. GOP complaints of government inaction reek of hypocrisy.
The second aspect of this story that I find disturbing is the cowardice of the right in failing to take any responsibility for its positions. During the 2008 election season, it sometimes felt like the GOP platform had one plank: "Drill baby, drill!" Despite the flawed math in play (the amount of oil to be gained from Arctic or offshore drilling represents a tiny fraction of the amount of oil we import from foreign countries), Republicans advocated for increased drilling as if this would solve the nation's energy problems. So when there is a huge oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, do we get any kind of mea culpa from the right? Hardly. We get Republicans blaming the president and Rush Limbaugh blaming the Sierra Club (seriously?).
I see the oil disaster not as a unique example of this problem, but as just the latest symptom of the disease. Americans seem to lack any short-term memory. The 2008 financial crisis led to a prolonged recession, and yet Republicans opposed financial reform, and the final bill that made it out of the Senate was so toothless, Wall Street was said to breathe "a sigh of relief." I understand why the GOP, whose reason for being is to protect corporate and wealthy interests over those of the majority of Americans, would oppose fixing a system that the party not only defended, but which delivered huge amounts of profit to its wealthy base. But what I don't understand is why there is no political price to pay for these actions. How can nearly every Republican vote against the bill, but those decisions seem to have no effect on public opinion? We are surrounded by casualties of Wall Street recklessness, from out-of-work neighbors to foreclosed houses, and yet Republicans and banking lobbyists win the day in Congress? This is unfathomable to me.
What is it going to take for people to wake up to the need for real financial regulation? We've had a crisis that led to a recession. Do we need a collapse that leads to a depression? I hope not.
The ability of Republicans who supported offshore drilling to act as though they have no responsibility for the BP disaster is not unusual. Like the amnesia related to financial regulation, it is just another instance of GOP hypocrisy.
Clearly, the existence of a right-wing media machine that lies and distorts to create its own set of "facts" has been instrumental in allowing the lines to blur. But, ultimately, if democracy is going to work, citizens have to fight through the propaganda to learn the facts. If not, they get what they deserve (like, for example, re-electing Bush in 2004).
For me, a lesson to be learned from the politics of the BP oil disaster is that the Republicans have spent 16 months attacking the president with lies and distortions, and now that he has to address a real crisis, the GOP rhetoric is smashing into the face of reality. The Republicans are standing knee-deep in hypocrisy, and their true priorities (their political interests) have been laid bare. While I'm not optimistic, I hope Americans learn this important lesson before casting ballots in November.