woody_zimmerman_118_2007In the weeks since a fire and explosion sank a British Petroleum off-shore oil rig and ruptured its mile-long connection to the sea-floor oil well, we have learned many lessons. Unfortunately, most of them have nothing to do with undersea oil drilling – of which we still know relatively little, despite media-obsession with and endless TV-clips of the gushing oil. Rather, the lessons have more to do with what White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel might call The Politics of Catastrophe. The Rahmster (as he is affectionately called) is famous for having publicly stated that a crisis should never be “wasted.”

As the weeks have sped by, with thousands of gallons of crude oil blackly gushing every day from the ruptured pipe on the sea floor, and oil starting to wash up on Louisiana beaches, Mr. Emanuel and his Democratic comrades have done their best to exercise the don’t-waste-a-crisis maxim. This was no less than one might have expected.

The obvious target of opportunity for scoring political points, of course, has been British Petroleum. The bizarre spectacle of Congressional committee chairmen, cabinet secretaries and other political poohbahs – most of which wouldn’t know an oil rig from a rigged roulette wheel – lashing BP for “ecological irresponsibility” reminds me of an eyewitness account to a public hanging I once read. The onlooker said the spectacle was “both horrifying and fascinating to behold:” fascinating, for being a ruthless exercise of group power, as the hapless victim’s life was snatched away from him in a moment. A ragged jeer went up from the crowd as the trap dropped. But silence quickly fell as the victim’s legs twitched horribly, then stilled and relaxed in unwilling death. The witness said most normal people left the event in the throes of some serious soul-searching about what they had participated in – at least indirectly.

This is why lawful executions are no longer performed in public. Extreme punishment may well be necessary and appropriate for some criminals, but allowing the event to become a grotesque public spectacle only coarsens the people who watch it – even when the execution is a lawful act.

Just so, the public crucifixion of BP has had a coarsening effect on the body politic. The Congressional hearings look like the Nazi show-trials where prosecutors hysterically berated defendants. (Only the language is different.) Anti-business leftists and radical environmentalists love the political spectacle, and they cheer the lynching on. It is a supreme moment for those who want to see the country forced into an economy with sky-high fuel and energy costs – or, optimally, into a “green” economy with no oil at all. Already the president has arrested the issuance of new offshore drilling permits. Can stoppage of all present offshore drilling be far behind? One can assume that only the prospect of $6-a-gallon gas and tripled electricity bills, mere months before the November elections, has stayed Mr. Obama’s hand.

People of a more reflective mind can see that the Obama government has assumed an extremely aggressive posture toward business in which no mistakes are tolerated. On May 3rd, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs spoke of “keeping our boot on the throat of BP” so the company stops the flow of oil – an unfortunate, Nazi-esque metaphor that signaled the Obama style to the entire country. I believe it has caused millions of Americans to wake up and say: “This oil-leak must be costing BP a fortune – maybe close to a million dollars a day. Is it really credible that they wouldn’t want to shut off the leak as soon as humanly possible? And do we really need Obama’s SS to make them fix the problem?”

Some in the Democrats’ camp have even tried to reprise the successful Katrina campaign, in which Democrats and media allies joined forces in a joyful bashing of George W. Bush that all but blamed Mr. Bush for the hurricane itself – and certainly for the federal government’s “slow” response to the flood-damage. Recently, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried to blame George W. Bush’s excessive “coziness” with the oil industry for the oil platform’s destruction and the uncontrolled leak. This makes for good news-copy (along the lines of “Franken-Bush II”) but it’s a long leap, even for Democrats. Also, it comes with its own risk.

The political risk is that the public might begin to realize that there is plenty of culpability to go around – including some for the Obama administration and certainly for the U. S. Congress – in the catastrophic spill. In point of fact, the federal government has progressively pushed off-shore drilling farther and farther away from shore to mollify the objections of seaside residents who dislike having their ocean views sullied by close-in oil rigs. Unfortunately, this renders the drilling riskier because the water gets deeper the farther out you go. The sea is a mile deep where the wrecked platform sank. This great depth is the salient fact in the failure of all attempts to stop the leak, to date.

The other political risk for Democrats is that some eager media operatives might get curious enough to look into whether proposed get-tough regulations would realistically have prevented the phenomena which caused the fire and disastrous explosion preceding the thus-far unstoppable oil leak. Any serious investigation into such questions will certainly raise more questions about what caused the fire and explosion – questions which remain, so far as we know, as yet unanswered. Obama administration officials and cabinet secretaries have scrupulously avoided even the remotest suggestion that sabotage might have been involved, but we have not yet received a definitive report to rule it out.

As Democrats are about to learn, the Katrina Effect can cut both ways. It was uproarious fun to blame the Bush administration for the mess in New Orleans from the hurricane. State and local officials got a pass from Big Media, while George Bush was liberally smeared with culpability for billions in damage and many suffering people – not to mention rapes and murders at the Superdome that never happened, and supposed neglect of black residents that was not supported by actual data. The New Orleans disaster was real enough, but much of the politically-assigned culpability missed the parties who should have been held accountable.

Ultimately, though, the people of New Orleans and Louisiana saw through the fog laid down by politicians and media. Once the posturing died down, they elected Republican Bobby Jindal as governor (2008) to replace Kathleen Blanco, who famously delayed calling for federal help until levees had broken and flood-waters had swept over the New Orleans Delta. They also replaced the incompetent Ray Nagin with Mitch Landrieu – their first white mayor in three decades.

Some bloggers and media organs are starting to call the Gulf oil-spill Barack Obama’s “Katrina” – thus signaling a growing inclination to pin the disaster to Mr. Obama, as Katrina was pinned to Mr. Bush. It’s absurd, of course, to try to make Mr. Obama responsible for the oil-rig accident and the ruptured oil-pipe. He has no more culpability than Mr. Bush had for Hurricane Katrina.

Mr. Bush got the most brickbats, though, for what the media saw as his government’s “leisurely” response to the storm. The media love simple formularies for complex situations, like hurricanes and oil spills. Just so, media are starting to complain that the Obama government has been “uninvolved” in the oil-spill crisis. Mr. Obama’s number has now come up on what he is probably calling “the @#$*&% Gulf Coast.” There hasn’t really been much he could do to solve the devilish problem of plugging an oil gusher a mile under the sea, but that doesn’t matter in media’s make-believe world where presidents are thought able to push the oceans back and cause the planet to cool. So far, The One has not been able to stop the oil, and that is becoming very hard for his media acolytes to explain.