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GOP courts the 'small people's' rage

Let's hear it for the small people.

Something got lost in translation when BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, a Swede, referred to victims of his company's Gulf of Mexico oil disaster as "the small people."

"We care about the small people," said Svanberg with all of the robotic passion of Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The Terminator."

When the small people back in the gulf took umbrage at the unintended condescension, Svanberg apologized. Let's give him a break. He apparently failed to grasp the subtle nuances of such folksy American self-references as "the little guy," "regular folks," "real Americans" (Sarah Palin's apparent favorite) or simply "y'all," a usage to which Svanberg's accent is not ideally suited.

Besides, the big BP guy's gaffe is nowhere near as offensive as that of Rep. Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who apologized on behalf of no one but himself to BP's CEO Tony Hayward for a White House "shakedown" and "slush fund."

That was Barton's description of the $20 billion fund BP agreed to create, after some arm-twisting by President Obama, to compensate people who lose work and wages because of BP's runaway oil gusher.

Since Barton has received more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from the oil industry during this election cycle, I suppose we should not be surprised by his deference to Big Oil. We probably should be relieved that he did not offer to hang a mistletoe on the CEO's coattail.

But sensing that the small people wouldn't like Barton's sentiments, either, House Republican leaders threatened to take away Barton's position as the energy subcommittee's top Republican -- and he apologized for his apology. By then Democrats were in full gaffe-and-gotcha react mode, sending out fax, tweet and e-mail transcripts of Barton's apology -- with visions of next spring's possible attack ads dancing in their heads.

Until then, media conversations seemed to be dominated by negative reactions to Obama's first Oval Office address -- from liberals.

Filled with lots of bromides but little in the way of action on the gulf spill, the president had raised higher expectations than he was ready to fulfill for either political side. Negative reactions threatened to bury the importance of his big announcement the next day: BP's agreement to create the $20 billion fund for gulf oil spill victims.

That's a big deal. The escrow fund streamlines compensation for victims, avoiding the legal fees and red tape that tied up both sides in Exxon's 21 years of litigation over the Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster in Alaska.

BP also wins. After having fallen to about half its value with the spill, its stock made a slight recovery after the announcement. After posting $17 billion in profit last year alone, according to the Associated Press, which is more than Apple ($5.7 billion) and Google ($6.5 billion) combined, BP should be able to handle the expense. Wall Street likes a sense of certainty.

The announcement left Republicans struggling to attack Obama without sounding too close to Big Oil. As the Washington Post noted, even in their statement distancing themselves from Barton, House Republican leaders John Boehner of Ohio, Eric Cantor of Virginia and Mike Pence of Indiana referred to the spill as a "natural" disaster, even though everyone knows it was caused by an oil rig explosion that killed 11 workers.

You can tell a lot about your success by the amount of outrage it stirs up in your opponents. Other conservatives sounded no less befuddled than Barton as they tried to attack Obama's "slush fund" without mentioning the many people it will help. They should show more respect. The "small people" grow pretty big on Election Day.

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