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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Private Failure and Public Responsibility

E.J. Dionne’s column today is a valuable meditation on the irony of the “socialist” Obama administration being stuck with BP as a partner in trying to mitigate the Gulf oil spill disaster, while the staunchly conservative Republican governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, is begging for more intervention from Washington. As he also notes, the problem of sorting out government and private-sector roles is vastly complicated by contradictions in public sentiments:

“Do something!” citizens shout to a government charged with protecting the environment in and around a Gulf of Mexico that is nobody’s private property. Yet the government, it seems, can’t do much of anything because the means of containing this unprecedented anomalous event are entirely in the hands of a private company. It was trusted to know what it was doing with complicated equipment that, it turns out, BP either didn’t understand very well or was willing to use recklessly.
Belatedly, the Obama Administration has realized that citizens can never accept the idea that their government is powerless. It’s making moves to show that it’s in charge, even when it’s not.

It’s worth remembering that this is the second huge crisis where the Obama administration has been forced to rely on broken private-sector systems to head off total disaster, with the first being the financial crisis. The president paid a very large political price for doing what he probably had to do in that situation, and while the Gulf oil spill is a somewhat less pervasive crisis, again, the choices are not good.
In the longer run, it may finally begin to sink in among government-hating citizens that unfettered market capitalism is a very dangerous thing. As Dionne concludes:
“Deregulation” is wonderful until we discover what happens when regulations aren’t issued or enforced. Everyone is a capitalist until a private company blunders. Then everyone starts talking like a socialist, presuming that the government can put things right because they see it as being just as big and powerful as its tea party critics claim.
But the truth is that we have disempowered government and handed vast responsibilities over to a private sector that will never see protecting the public interest as its primary task. The sludge in the Gulf is, finally, the product of our own contradictions.

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