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Why aren’t Democrats emotionally exploiting the oil spill?

“Rule 1: Never allow a crisis to go to waste,” said Rahm Emanuel on Nov. 9, 2008. “They are opportunities to do big things.” But in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, Democrats have failed to follow Rule 2: Shameless emotional exploitation is your friend. 

Logic would suggest that the BP oil spill would make comprehensive energy legislation more likely, if not inevitable—especially if, as appears to be the case, there were systemic lapses that contributed to the accident. Instead, legislation has become less likely.

The Senate energy bill predates the spill, and the disaster may actually succeed in killing it. After the accident, the White House put a freeze on new offshore drilling. This caused Senate Republicans whose support of any legislation depended on its allowance of continued drilling to back away from the bill. Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, wouldn’t commit to a bill that would allow drilling. (Of course, before all this happened, Sen. Lindsey Graham, the bill’s lone Republican sponsor, pulled his support of the bill after Democrats broke their promise to prioritize energy over immigration reform.)

It’s hard to exaggerate the absurdity of this scenario. Imagine if, after 9/11, a group of fiscally hawkish senators opposed invading Afghanistan because it would cost too much. You can’t, can you? Their position would have been untenable. America was attacked and all you care about is deficit reduction? Supporters of an invasion would have milked the moment for all its emotional worth. And the fiscal hawks would have buckled.

So why hasn’t something similar happened with energy legislation? There would come a point, you’d think, when the oil spill was such an unmitigated disaster, environmentally and politically, that Republicans would set aside their ultimatums about drilling, Democrats would set aside their paranoia about it, and members of both parties would support alternative energy legislation. Not all of them. Just a handful would be enough.

But for that to happen, Democrats would have to demand it. And so far they haven’t. Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, the remaining sponsors of the energy bill, have been pushing hard to keep fellow senators onboard. At a Christian Science Monitor breakfast on Wednesday, Kerry implied that his fellow Democrats should get over their fears about drilling: “We are not going to stop drilling in the Gulf tomorrow, folks,” he said. “Let’s be realistic. There are 48,000 wells out there. One of them went sour. About 30 percent of our transportation fuel comes from the Gulf. You think Americans are going to suddenly stop driving to work tomorrow?”

But swaying senators means pulling out all the emotional stops. Blown-up photos of oiled birds. Testimony from fishermen who lost their livelihood. Aerial shots of miles of unswimmable beach. It’s manipulative. It builds bad faith. It may even be misleading. And it works.

There’s plenty to exploit, too. Emotions are running high. Seventy-six percent of Americans disapprove of how BP has handled the cleanup, according to a CNN poll. And the spill hasn’t yet tarnished President Obama, as Katrina did George W. Bush—one recent poll found that more people approve than disapprove of his handling of the spill. (Although the tide may be turning.)

Obama is beginning to seize the moment. At a fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer on Wednesday, he called the spill “heartbreaking” and said that it highlights the need for a “long-term strategy” to “start cultivating solar and wind and biodiesel.” He will make the case again in a speech and press conference on Thursday. He’s also toughening the rules on drilling.

But his anger over the spill itself—”Plug the damn hole,” Obama said this week—far outweighs his anger over the hold-up in the Senate. Recall his involvement in the health care debate. He gave dozens of speeches. He addressed pressure groups. He personally courted swing votes. On financial regulation reform, he has called out specific senators and provisions for criticism.

A climate bill requires the same. Perhaps even more, since a climate bill could make Majority Leader Harry Reid vulnerable in November. But as Dave Roberts of Grist has argued, “The only way this thing gets done is if Obama lays himself on the line for it.” That includes making the emotional case. He will have to cry over spilled oil.

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