06/22/2010 12:36 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Republicans Spin Themselves Dizzy Over Obama's BP 'Shakedown'

As soon as the virtual ink was dry on BP's commitment to a $20 billion escrow to reimburse Gulf spill costs, Republicans pounced quickly -- on each other.

First, party leaders claimed that Obama had nothing to do with persuading BP to set up the fund -- BP had already planned to do so, and the president was grabbing undue credit.

Then, they spun in a different direction. Spurred on by Tea Party activists, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann gave President Obama full credit/blame for the escrow account, calling it a "redistribution-of-wealth" away from the private sector, code for the socialist grenade she likes to lob at liberals.

But Georgia Republican Tom Price nailed the rhetorical spin-smithing when he called it a Chicago-style "shakedown."

Texas Congressman Joe Barton (R-Oil) knew Price was onto something. He launched a tirade the next morning, at the start of congressional hearings aimed at nailing BP's CEO to the wall. Barton broke from the script: Instead of following the national mood and condemning BP, he apologized to Hayward for the President's $20 billion "shakedown."

Then Republican leaders, panicked that Barton's apology to BP would be pounced on by Democrats as proof that the GOP was the party of Big Oil, forced Barton to retract his apology, or lose a committee seat.

Democrats were slower-footed and more rhetorically challenged, with their boringly predictable counter-spin. "When people in the Gulf are suffering from actions taken by BP, Republicans in Congress are apologizing to BP," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters. Touche?

Now, the positions are beginning to settle, but in predictable ideological patterns. Centrists generally support the fund as just and necessary. Leftists paranoid of corporations support the BP fund and could care less whether or not it is a shakedown. Tea Partiers paranoid of government oppose it as an unconstitutional "taking" and fear their bank accounts will be next. In the middle is a vast array that recognizes BP needs to be held accountable, and that waiting a generation for Congress and the Courts to act would set an impossible barrier to justice for the thousands affected. Libertarian Thomas Sowell calls these sensible centrists "useful idiots" helping to advance radical collectivism. He'd be well advised to consider whether his knee-jerk response is more instinctive than intellectual.

As usual, there is truth on all sides. But in this case, it is buried deep beneath the political dung. Few politicians of either party really care whether the $20 billion fund is or isn't an example of a shakedown -- the political sugar is far sweeter than the principle at hand. The ideologues at each end of the spectrum don't really care either - on the far right, they're too eager to conclude it is a shakedown and another step on the march to socialism. And on the far left, they're hoping the far right is correct.

We should care, however. Here's my take.

First, this is no shakedown. The president exerted determined pressure, but that's his job, and anything less would have been justly condemned by the right and left alike. Shakedowns happen in private, to victims -- not in full view of the public, to clear perpetrators. BP earned the pressure it now has to bear. Its lawyers have given terrible counsel to its top executives from Day 1, placing the company at extraordinary risk. More important, the people victimized by BP's systemic safety failures, which appear to be far deeper than the industry norm, deserve to be assured of compensation -- and the bill should be paid by the company, not by taxpayers.

Second, the Tea Partiers are right about one thing: We'd better keep an eye on how this escrow account is spent. Otherwise, it may be tapped for everything but true reimbursement of the victims. It would be easy for politicians and even judges to tap the fund for barely-related purposes, leaving it to lawyers to squeeze BP for more funds later. That would be abusive, hurting almost everyone involved.

Third, we need to actually solve the systemic problem. Here's how: regulate. Yes, if ever there were a place for regulation, this is it.

1. IMPROVE EPA REGULATIONS, to mandate best-in-class practices in fossil fuel extraction. Other petroleum companies have much stricter safety standards. These should be extended across the industry, so there is never a competitive advantage to be gained from unsafe operation.

2. ENFORCE EPA REGULATIONS, so that companies like BP can't slide in the US. The dismantling of enforcement that happens when anti-government demagogues are in power is not acceptable when the stakes are this high. Paradoxically, when anti-regulators are in power, regulations become what they hate most.

3. ESTABLISH NEW EPA REGULATIONS on carbon emissions, now that the Murkowski resolution has been defeated. This isn't the best way to reduce carbon. A price on carbon -- made revenue neutral by equal dividends or reductions in payroll taxes -- would be far more effective. But without EPA regulations as a backstop, a price on carbon is unlikely to be enacted soon.

That's right, regulations are needed. Of course, the deeper solution is to put a price on carbon and gradually wean the country from its dependence. That will happen. The only question is how many future economic, ecological, and military crises it will take before we act.

It's fun and opportunistic to use the BP spill as an excuse to condemn all corporate or government action, depending on which we fear most. But that's rhetorical opportunism. It won't prevent similar spills in the future. Putting the right regulations in place, and following that with a price on carbon, will.