A clever politician can get away with a lot; standards in the profession aren’t high. But if there is one thing Americans will not put up with from their elected officials, it’s complete honesty. The only truly unforgivable sin in Washington is sincerity.

So when Rep. Joe Barton, the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, apologized to BP for President Obama’s “$20 billion shakedown” of the company I knew he was in trouble.

“It is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown,” Barton had said. The Texas Republican was talking, of course, about the deal the president had cut with BP to set up a $20 billion escrow account to pay damages to victims of the Gulf oil disaster.

Naturally, Democrats were all over that like a piñata, beating it with sticks. His Republican colleagues pulled him off to one side and said: “What are you, crazy?”

Sadly, within six hours he recanted his position and apologized for his apology. He said he had been “misinterpreted.”

No, he hadn’t. In a moment of weakness he had given us a glimpse into the mindset of the political Right. To a man (and woman), it believes that poor BP is being victimized by its victims. Barton was merely being true to the Republican philosophy of standing up for the rich and powerful against the tyranny of the weak. He just didn’t have the courage of his lack of convictions.

Over the past 20 years Barton has collected $1.4 million in campaign funds from Big Oil, and he was merely paying a dividend to the industry on that investment.

Since 1998, Big Oil has spent nearly a billion dollars in Washington, lobbying for tax breaks, diminished regulation and drilling licenses–and it got them.

Actually, Barton’s apology was not unique. The day before he spoke the Republican Study Committee, an arm of House Republicans, called the $20 billion deal a “Chicago-style shakedown” and Rep. Michele Bachmann, the rightwing darling from Minnesota, has called the escrow account “a redistribution-of-wealth fund.”

When Senate Democrats proposed raising the liability of oil companies for a spill from $10 billion to $75 billion, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) stepped in to block it from being considered.

She said it would hurt the smaller companies and produce “unintended consequences.”

Not that Democrats aren’t on the oil companies’ tab too. Oil-state Democrats are upset about Obama’s temporary moratorium on offshore drilling because they’re oil lackeys first, then Democrats.

They have the good grace to act shamefaced about it, however. Republicans don’t. They actually are outraged at the very thought that a corporation that pays their campaign bills should be penalized for its misdeeds. Corporations, in their view, are sacred and must be protected at all costs.

It’s why our health care is so expensive. First you have to take care of insurance companies, then patients.

It’s that reality Barton revealed, if only for six hours. It’s also a reality that Republicans can’t afford to brag much, which is why they bludgeoned Barton into a public apology. (There’s also a rumor that the House leadership locked him in a room and piped in Sarah Palin speeches until he broke down, but I can’t get that verified.)

The really odd thing is that the conventional wisdom says that Democrats will lose support in the next election because of the oil spill. That means Republicans–including kooks and crazies like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sharron Angle of Nevada, who want to do away with what little government protection we have against corporations–will gain support and votes.

Some are even predicting that Republicans will pick up enough seats to take over the House of Representatives.

And voters think that will make things better? Oh wow.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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