Republicans have spent a couple years now answering any question about climate change and energy independence with the dishonest slogan “Drill baby drill!” It’s simplistic enough to have worked for the past couple years. But the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (and which oil industry flak wrote this NY Times piece today minimizing the consequences?) has changed that conversation, and led Republicans to retreat or at least backtrack on their position.

We saw yesterday that Arnold Schwarzenegger ended his support of a controversial offshore drilling project in California. Today, John Cornyn didn’t know how to react to a proposal to raise the cap on liability damages for BP relating to the oil spill:

Texas Sen. John Cornyn (R) on Tuesday indicated that Senate Republicans might consider raising the liability cap for large-scale oil spills like the British Petroleum spill in the Gulf of Mexico […]

“You know, I think we ought to have a discussion about that,” Cornyn said. “That’s not going to stop the oil from flowing now, but we need to have a further discussion on that. I don’t think we know enough yet to answer that question.”

Others are conflicted enough to know that public outcry forces them to back off drilling while still wanting to push it. John Boehner’s statement on an “all-of-the-above” energy plan puts drilling squarely in the background. Marco Rubio, who is running for Senate in the state in dead aim of the giant oil slick, called drilling “horrifying” and then said he still supports it.

Rubio said the immediate focus must be on mitigating the damage and investigating the cause of the problem. But on oil drilling, “I ultimately think that still has to be part of our overall energy strategy.”

“The issue of offshore drilling is not going away, because America and the world depends heavily on petroleum products,” the Republican U.S. Senate candidate told the St. Petersburg Times this morning.

This is the box in which Republicans now find themselves. Their campaign contributors in the oil and gas industry want more domestic production, or at least the leases on the reserves. But the public isn’t ready to support new projects when the old ones have rigs blowing up in US waters. So for every Republican Governor still pressing for expanded drilling, there are plenty of colleagues reluctant to address it, at least in public.

As there doesn’t expect to be resolution on the oil gusher for at least a month, Republicans will have plenty more time to twist in the wind on this one. I can see Kendrick Meek’s campaign ads now – “Marco Rubio wants to privatize Social Security and expose the state coastline to oil sludge!”

David Dayen

David Dayen