The new centerpiece of a campaign strategy

THE NEW CENTERPIECE OF A CAMPAIGN STRATEGY…. In terms of political crisis management, House Republicans and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) did the right thing on Thursday — they responded quickly. Barton issued a groveling public apology to BP at 11 a.m., and within a few hours, the right-wing Texan had reversed course and the party leadership had denounced his remarks. The goal was to tear the bandage off swiftly, in the hopes that it would be a one-day story.

Democrats’ goal, of course, is to figure out how to keep the story alive and relevant for the next five months. There’s little doubt that they’re prepared to use Barton’s BP apology as the starting point of a larger campaign effort.

The White House worked [Friday] to extend the damage of Rep. Joe Barton’s apology to BP for the “shakedown” it received by the White House in setting up the $20 billion escrow fund to compensate victims of the oil spill.

En route to an event in Columbus, Ohio, White House spokesman Bill Burton made a thinly-veiled promise that Democrats will make the issue a voting matter this fall.

“If Republicans were in control of the House, Joe Barton is the man who would be the chairman of that [Energy and Commerce] committee. So that’s just something that I think people will be considering moving forward here,” he said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Maryland), who runs the House Democrats’ campaign operation, was more direct, saying Barton’s comment will feature prominently in Democratic campaigns this year. “This will become an issue in the races around the country, because it’s another big piece of the story about how the Republicans have been on the side of the big corporations,” he said.

He said they would make sure voters knew that if the GOP wins the majority, Barton would be the “Republican point person” on energy.

Van Hollen also talked to Greg Sargent yesterday, and went even further still, arguing, “Joe Barton said publicly where the majority of Republicans stand on energy — protecting the big oil companies…. We’re going to be making the point again and again that Joe Barton’s comments on big oil [show] Republicans in the House stand on the side of big corporate interests against consumers and taxpayers.”

For what it’s worth, Dems seem to be making two points here, one of which is much stronger than the other. The first is that Republicans are fighting to protect oil companies, over the public’s needs, and Barton’s apology to BP only helps crystallize the larger problem. That’s a strong, salient point.

The second is that Barton would be the chairman of the House Energy Committee next year if Republicans re-take the House, so a vote for a GOP candidate is a vote to put this clown in charge of industry oversight. That’s less compelling — in part because it might not be entirely true, and in part because Republican leaders can (and probably should) take the talking point away by simply declaring that Barton isn’t in line to be the next chairman.

Either way, this is likely a drum Dems won’t stop beating for quite a while.