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Politics & Poker: Is BP Political Fallout Apocalypse Now — or Not?

It was really rather touching.

There was Joe Scarborough, the MSNBC personality and former Congressman, wandering the beach in his hometown of Pensacola, Fla., the other day, kicking at tar balls, lamenting the damaged wildlife and railing against corporate greed. The same Joe Scarborough who, in his last full year in Congress, got a failing 43 score from the League of Conservation Voters (though that’s considerably higher than his successor, Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, routinely gets from the environmental group).

Now, this is not going to be a screed about Scarborough’s political transformation — or what you could charitably call his evolution since leaving Congress and going to work in television — though that would surely merit a full column or more someday.

But Scarborough’s populist, pro-environment, anti-corporate public posture on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill may be a harbinger of something. At the very least, it begs the question: Could this disaster bring about a change in our body politic, either in the short term or the long term?

Here’s a not-too-bold answer: maybe.

No one is eager to talk publicly about the politics of the oil spill, with the gusher still fouling the Gulf and untold wildlife and livelihoods in grave danger of being obliterated forever. But it’s also clear that a million political calculations are already being made.

In the short term, it would appear as if the spill has the potential to alter the dynamic — or at least the conversation — in several political races in the Gulf region. As Nathan Gonzales details elsewhere in today’s paper, and as others have written, Rep. Charlie Melancon, the Democratic Senate nominee in Louisiana, has boosted his public profile considerably since the Deepwater explosion. It now seems as if Melancon’s opponent is BP, rather than Republican Sen. David Vitter.

This is going to be such a strong year for Republicans, especially in the South, that Melancon’s efforts may all be for naught; Melancon is the best possible candidate Democrats could have recruited for this race, and still he’s badly trailing Vitter in the polls, despite all of the incumbent’s flaws. But “if this race tightens, I think this will be seen as a turning point,” one Democratic strategist predicts.

In Joe Scarborough’s Florida, the politics of oil seems upside down now. For a long time, even Republicans, as epitomized by Gov. Charlie Crist, were hesitant to embrace offshore drilling. But the position of party leaders and officials had evolved up until the time of the BP disaster, to more of a pro-drilling posture. Crist had followed suit — though he appears to have done an about-face once again now that he is running for Senate as an Independent. Like the birds who are turning up on TV all the time, Crist’s campaign website has recently been scrubbed of all references to drilling. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is adopting Melancon’s pugnacity and is reminding voters (and journalists) about Republican Senators’ or Senate nominees’ quotes and votes about (and campaign contributions from) BP and Big Oil. Democrats see the BP spill as fitting nicely into a narrative they’re trying to spin this election cycle: In the health care reform fight, Republicans sided with insurance companies. In the financial reform debate, Republicans are siding with Wall Street. And as the discussion over environmental and energy policy advances, Republicans, they will argue, are siding with big energy companies.

That may be a little too neat of a package to fly come election time, especially if the economy is still struggling and the GOP scores with its arguments that the Democrats are making government more bloated than ever. But at least a few Republican moderates in Congress are sufficiently concerned that they’re talking a little more insistently these days about the necessity of working with Democrats to pass some kind of energy bill, and soon.

And if that isn’t noteworthy enough, how about the statement the other day from House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) that he’s willing to see the $75 million liability cap lifted, at least as far as BP is concerned? That’s noteworthy for a party that’s only too happy to kick trial lawyers seven days a week and twice on Sunday.

If the earth’s environment is in enough of a crisis that some Republicans now feel comfortable enough to come out of their cocoons, challenge party orthodoxy and say something about it, could this be a sign that voters’ attitudes are about to change, that the environment will shoot up the list of voter priorities? And why stop at talking about lifestyle? Are lifestyle changes afoot? Are we Americans ready to change the way they live — do more than just give lip service to the notion that we’ve got to break our addiction to fossil fuels?

Don’t for a second assume that this crisis presents nothing but opportunity for Democrats, environmentalists, liberals, trial lawyers and populists. There’s plenty of peril in it for them as well. Remember, it’s President Barack Obama and his administration that is managing this crisis — and while suggestions that the BP disaster is “Obama’s Katrina” are probably premature, you can’t say that the administration has acquitted itself that impressively, either.

Republicans aren’t saying much about Obama’s handling of the crisis because they don’t have to. Every day that the hole goes unplugged, every 24-hour news cycle that the disaster dominates cable news is a mark against Obama. Every day when even sympathetic commentators are yelling at him to emote more, to seethe at BP and to feel the pain, Bill Clinton-style, of the Gulf communities, then Obama is losing political points and political capital.

Primary results over the past month have revealed a hodgepodge of political trends; one week’s story line seems to contradict the previous week’s. Which probably means that when November rolls around, it will be a conventional midterm election after all, and the president’s party stands to do badly. So Obama is doing himself — and his party — no favors as the BP crisis hurdles toward its third month.

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