06/17/2010 05:32 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Watch Out BP, There's A New Villain In Town

When British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward began his testimony before the House Oversight Committee today, the political script seemed easy to follow. He apologized profusely while trying to insist that his company still deserves the right to exist. Representatives on both sides of the aisle readied their scripted outrage and recently-disclosed internal documents for the cameras. He was a deserving magnet for rage. The political implications were unclear.

When Lloyd Blankfein appeared before the Senate and Carl Levin held him up as an example of everything wrong with Wall Street, it framed the financial reform debate, putting opponents on the side of the bankers. Maybe Hayward could play the role of Blankfein?

President Obama and Democratic leaders have not been able to channel outrage at the spill into momentum for more energy regulation -- the Republican ethos of 'drill, baby, drill' was surprisingly resilient, helped along by arguments that blamed environmentalists for the spill (Rush Limbaugh) or now point to BP as a founder of the "cap-and-trade" lobby (Matt Drudge, complete with "Barack Petroleum" headline).

Everyone was outraged, but there was no clue as to whether a clear political storyline would emerge. Until Republican Rep. Joe Barton decided make things easier for the Democrats. The first questioner from his party, the Ranking Member of the House Oversight Committee's Energy and Commerce Subcommittee decided that BP deserved an apology.

"I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday," Barton said in his opening statement, referring to yesterday's decision to establish a BP-funded escrow fund that would pay for the cleanup.

"I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown -- in this case a $20 billion shakedown."

Oops. The federal government might not be popular, but Tony Hayward and BP right now are only a few notches above Osama Bin Laden, and now even some Republicans are calling for Barton to step down from his perch on the the committee.

But the blood might already be in the water. Barton was the face of Republican opposition to the comprehensive climate bill that passed Congress last year, openly sparred with Al Gore, and called the science behind climate change "pretty weak stuff." For Democrats and activists, his comments, live and pre-planned, are worth a thousand Al Gore speeches.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs pounced, calling for everyone to denounce Barton, but did not paint Republicans with his brush. "What is shameful is that Joe Barton seems to have more concern for big corporations that caused this disaster than the fishermen, small
business owners and communities whose lives have been devastated by the destruction," he said, keeping the focus on the immediate policies related to the escrow fund and the spill.

"Congressman Barton may think that a fund to compensate these Americans is a 'tragedy', but
most Americans know that the real tragedy is what the men and women of the Gulf Coast are going through right now. Members from both parties should repudiate his comments."

The focus on the Gulf has had little effect on the Senate's inability to move a climate bill, which has been halted by loud opposition and a sense that the taint of environmentalism could be deadly during a midterm campaign when unemployment is still lingering around ten percent. Obama didn't even mention the words "climate change" in his Tuesday speech. But the energy bill that is limping through could use some help, and today, Joe Barton was more than willing to provide it.