Editor’s note: John P. Avlon is a senior political columnist for The Daily Beast and author of the new book "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America." Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.
By John Avlon, Special to CNN
The wingnut wars have escalated to such an extent that we can’t even deal with a natural disaster without the partisan attacks and counter-offensives coming full force. That’s why this week we’re looking at the shameful attempts to turn the devastating oil spill in the Gulf into an ugly partisan football.
We’ll start with El Rushbo – Senor Limbaugh was inevitably among the first to wade into the muck, questioning whether the oil spill was caused by environmental saboteurs and asking his audience whether it was timed to impact the energy bill:
“I want to get back to the timing of the blowing up, the explosion out there in the Gulf of Mexico of this oil rig. Since they're sending SWAT teams down there now this changes the whole perspective of this. Now, lest we forget, ladies and gentlemen, the carbon tax bill, cap and trade that was scheduled to be announced on Earth Day. I remember that. And then it was postponed for a couple of days later after Earth Day, and then of course immigration has now moved in front of it…But this bill, the cap-and-trade bill, was strongly criticized by hardcore environmentalist wackos because it supposedly allowed more offshore drilling and nuclear plants, nuclear plant investment. So, since they're sending SWAT teams down there, folks, since they're sending SWAT teams to inspect the other rigs, what better way to head off more oil drilling, nuclear plants, than by blowing up a rig? I'm just noting the timing here.”
As conspiracy theories go, this one is pretty ornate – environmental terrorism backed by a well-timed attempt to derail legislation. I particularly love how the Obama administration’s centrist policy outreach to increase off shore oil exploration and nuclear power plants – a core piece of the GOP’s proposals – is summarily dismissed by Limbaugh, saying Obama “supposedly” backed the proposals. Guess you can’t give fair credit when it means supporting the policies of the president from a different party.
But we’ve come to expect these hyper-partisan bloviations from Rush – they are part of this expert political entertainers shtick – his audience doesn’t expect responsibility, they tune in for the outrage.
But current and former political officials should be held to a higher standard and that’s why the resurfacing of Bush’s Katrina-era FEMA director Michael Brown was particularly ugly and pathetic. The man who will be forever known as “Heckuva Job, Brownie” should understand better than anyone that disasters occur beyond partisan politics, but there he was on television, endorsing the conspiracy:
"This is exactly what they want, because now he can pander to the environmentalists and say, 'I'm gonna shut it down because it's too dangerous,'" Brown told Fox's Neil Cavuto. "This president has never supported Big Oil, he's never supported offshore drilling, and now he has an excuse to shut it back down."
Seriously? "This is exactly what they want"? People who live in glass houses shouldn’t be throwing stones. This is hypocrisy of the highest order. Brown should slink back into well-deserved retirement from the national stage.
But over-the-top attempts to score political points off the disaster aren’t just limited to the administration’s opposition. BP was responsible for the rig and it should pay for the cleanup. But reaching new heights of anti-corporate rhetoric was Obama administration Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who assured Americans that, "Our job is basically to keep the boot on the neck of BP."
"Boot on the neck" – Really? By reflexively reaching for a militaristic metaphor, Salazar reinforced the worst stereotypes of anti-business, big-government instincts from the left side of the aisle. This tough guy talk quickly became an instant classic tailor-made for the opposition, sure to be repeated at a hundred election-year protest rallies. It will be embraced as shorthand for the arrogance of power and it succeeded in somehow doing the impossible: making BP seem like a victim in the ensuing litigation.
We’ve got a problem when Americans can’t unite around a constructive response to a national disaster like this massive oil spill in the Gulf. Gutterball gamesmanship doesn’t do anything to help the people who live along the Gulf or the local fishing industry which is likely to face more economic pain. It’s yet another reminder of an old bit of forgotten wisdom: partisan politics ought to stop at the water’s edge.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.