Steve Benen and Greg Sargent have been making an important point lately that hasn’t yet received the attention it deserves: to the extent that Republicans intend to oppose efforts to hold BP accountable this summer and fall, they are extremely vulnerable politically.

Here’s Benen first, commenting on Republican confusion over just what lengths they should go to in their defense of big oil companies:

It’s no doubt tricky — the GOP has been allied with oil companies for years — and considering the party’s rhetoric of late, I’m not sure Republicans have decided exactly what point(s) they want to emphasize.

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But politically, it’s worth keeping an eye on a potential trend — if Republicans position themselves as the party looking out for BP and the oil industry’s interests, there may be political consequences.

And here’s Sargent, commenting on John Boehner’s confusion on the issue:

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His announcement amounts to a tacit acknowledgment that public rage at BP, and the public’s desire that lawmakers hold the company accountable, have left Republicans little maneuvering room. In other words, the insistence on holding BP fully accountable is, and will continue to be, a very potent political issue for Dems.

I was especially pleased to see Politico — which typically doesn’t make smart observations about political situations in which Republicans are vulnerable — pick up on this dynamic yesterday:

Republicans are now struggling with how to show appropriate outrage at Big Oil while sticking to their long-standing pro-drilling, pro-oil-company policies.

I agree with everything above. The situation presents each party with a unique opportunity.

For Democrats, it represents a chance to advance clean energy legislation and put Republicans on the defensive. Democrats know how unpopular oil companies are right now. And public opinion on offshore drilling has turned rapidly in recent months, with support falling 15-25% in dozens of major recent polls. They also know that Republicans will likely do everything in their power to protect the interests of the oil industry, including fighting to allow oil companies to drill in increasingly dangerous ways with minimal oversight. Despite promises of a $20B escrow account, the public remains extremely eager to hold BP accountable.

As I argued the other day, Democrats would be smart to tie “common sense energy efficiency measures and clean energy investments with a package of oil industry regulations and accountability policies. Call it the Big Oil Accountability Act.”

It isn’t yet clear how they’ll proceed, with a variety of proposals on the table and diverse views within the caucus.

Fortunately, some Democrats are starting to take advantage of GOP weakness on the issue:

  • Following his meeting with BP executives Wednesday, President Obama said, “This is about accountability. At the end of the day, that’s what every American wants and expects.”
  • Speaking to Think Progress on Monday, Senator Merkley (D-OR) explained that if Bobby Jindal had called for continued drilling as a West Coast Governor, it would be his last term in office.
  • At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Senator Schumer told reporters that “BP finally got the message” in response to news that the company had suspended previously scheduled dividend payments.

The next seven weeks likely represent the best opportunity Democrats will have to move clean energy legislation during Obama’s presidency. Their odds of doing so will hinge on their willingness and ability to make the connection between the oil spill and the urgent need for energy reform — and ultimately, the extent to which a handful of Republicans feel compelled to join them.

The Republican party has a different kind of choice to make. Conventional wisdom says Republicans will do as they have traditionally done: whatever the oil industry wants. And based on what we’ve seen so far, that is exactly how they intend to play this. Consider these examples:

  • Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour argued on Wednesday against the creation of a BP-funded $20 billion escrow account.
  • Senator Brown (R-MA), speaking on a Massachusetts radio station before meeting with President Obama, accused the President of trying to push a “national energy tax.”
  • Senator Alexander has been keen to criticize the Administration’s response to the spill, but when pushed for specifics, offers no solutions.
  • 17 Republicans (and one Democrat) called a press conference on Tuesday to argue for an expansion of offshore drilling.
  • House Republicans have a bill to hold BP accountable. One problem: experts say it won’t actually hold BP accountable.

These are just a few example of Republicans going out of their way to side with BP this week. There are dozens more.

No matter which path Democrats opt to pursue, an overwhelming majority of Republicans are going to call it a national energy tax and fight against it. Bradford Plumer, lamenting the fact that the response to the Santa Barbara spill in 1969 was far more appropriate, notes that many Republicans have “simply assimilated the BP fiasco into their worldview.”

Now, if Republicans want to spend all summer defending big oil companies and going out of their way to stick up for them on television, that is perfectly fine by me. I think voters would see through such a tactic and punish them at the polls for it. Seriously, Republicans, I dare you to do this.

But as oil continues to gush into Gulf and onto th
e shores of vacation destinations in the months leading up to mid-term elections, some Republicans are going to feel the squeeze. I’ll be curious to see the ads against Senator Graham in South Carolina, for example, if oil makes significant landfall in Hilton Head or Myrtle Beach. As BP executives continue to make offensive gaffes, flow-rate estimates increaes exponentially and support for offshore drilling careens toward nil, Republicans might realize that voters are in no mood for politicians who watch out for corporate profits over sound policy.

Then again they might not. But if they are ever going to come to their senses and support a sane energy policy, this summer is as good a time as any.

Update — Steve Benen continues hammering this point home:

I don’t think Republicans have thought through the politics of this. If they don’t want to praise the Obama White House for its success with BP yesterday, fine. But the GOP is approaching the point at which Dems will reasonably be able to argue that Republicans are siding with BP over the country.