“The only good news from the oil spill is that when catastrophe strikes, even some hard-line conservatives, like Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, start begging for the federal government to act, and act big. It’s the crunch moment for government to make its case — as Obama belatedly started to do on Thursday. But words are no match for results. As long as the stain washes up on shore, the hole in BP’s pipe will serve the right as a gaping hole in the president’s argument for expanded government supervision of, for starters, Big Oil and big banks. It’s not just the gulf that could suffer for decades to come.”
—Frank Rich, New York Times, Sunday
I love Frank Rich. I agree with him almost always, and am thrilled that someone whose commentary will be read by millions, among them people who, well, matter, actually says what I would say if I wrote a column that is read by millions—among them people who matter.
And Sunday’s column was no exception. Well, except for that second-last sentence in what is the final paragraph of the column.
Rich is one of the few political commentators who recognize rote conventional wisdom for what it is: mechanical, formulaic, and often out-of-date pronouncements that echo from one to another to another pundit, without questioning, without independent analysis. So I was surprised that he accepts unquestioningly the presumption that the federal government’s failure to stem the tide of oil pouring into the Gulf is good news for the Tea Partiers and the more traditional “pro small-government/pro large-corporation” Republicans. There is, after all, a difference between a government’s inability to pull off an engineering feat of a perhaps-impossible nature after a crisis has arisen and the government’s ability to force the prevention of such crises in the first place. And that difference is what this oil-spill tragedy demonstrates, in high relief.
The art term, not the term of art.
The larger tenet of Reich’s column is an accurate one: “Obama,” he says, “was elected as a progressive antidote to [Bush’s] discredited brand of governance. Of all the president’s stated goals, none may be more sweeping than his desire to prove that government is not always a hapless and intrusive bureaucratic assault on taxpayers’ patience and pocketbooks, but a potential force for good.” But a prerequisite to government’s ability to competently act as a force for good—in this instance, a force for the prevention of immense harm to millions of people, many of them undoubtedly Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin aficionados, is that the government first be given the legal authority, the legal responsibility, and the actual means with which to do this.
Yes, most big-government-versus-small-government issues lend themselves to the irrational we-want-it-both-ways (“Keep your government hands off my Medicare!”) demagoguery. But not this one. Which is why this one is far more likely to kill the Tea Party movement than help it. As Rich notes, Rand Paul claimed in his victory speech after winning the Republican primary in a race for an open Senate seat in Tennessee earlier this month, his victory was a victory for the Tea Party.
But because, also as Rich mentions, Paul soon attributed the BP spill to mere accident—“Accidents happen”—rather than to premeditated negligence, and because a cascade of internal BP memos leaked to the New York Times, which reported on them on Saturday, detail in jaw-dropping fashion exactly how this particular accident happened, the Tea Party movement is likely to be, rather than enhanced by this situation, fatally wounded by it.
The stains that wash up on shore, the destruction of the fishing industry in the Gulf and the perhaps nearly as devastating impact on tourism, even on some of Florida’s gulf coast, the death of thousands of birds, and who knows what else, cannot logically be seen as an argument for failing to dramatically strengthen government oversight over mega-corporations and mega-industries that can cause such profound, extensive, undeniable, harm—immediate and long-term—to such a huge swath of the public and to the fundamental ecosystem.
The federal government is impotent to mitigate this disaster because it has not had what is should have had and what, hopefully it now will be given: a small separate agency staffed entirely with top-flight, well-paid engineers who can develop strategies that geared toward preventing such catastrophes and dealing expeditiously and proficiently with crises when they do occur. But the federal government was powerless to prevent this crisis not because of an inherent failure of government, by its very nature, to do so but instead because of the triumph of an ideology whose very goal was to render the government powerless and the oil companies and other huge industries all-powerful to determine so much for all of us.
If this calamity in the Gulf illustrates anything—and it does—it’s that libertarian ideology should not be limited to government imposition upon individual rights. BP, which will affect the quality of life for so many individuals for a long time to come, is not a government subsidiary. Not technically, anyway.