|The Politics of Naivete--UPDATED|
Or, The Dangers of Keeping Your Eye On The Ball When Playing the Oakland Raiders.
There is no question that the response of the White House, from a political sense, to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath was inadequate. Why else would there have had to be four trips by either POTUS or VPOTUS to the region in the two weeks since the Hurricane? If memory serves (and I’m sure someone will have some memory of this) it only took the President one trip to Ground Zero to get on top of the politics of 9/11. And, sure, it was easier then—the country was prepared for the President to get out in front of that story. When he had that spontaneous moment with the bullhorn, it was exactly what the country was looking for.
What people seem to forget is that that moment was three days after the attacks. Three days.
Now, I’m not sure who was advising the President on this, but whoever had him do a flyover of New Orleans TWO days after Katrina was just not thinking very well. I would argue that the country (not Washington, mind you—the country) was looking for a little leadership at that moment, also, and just flying over on your way home from vacation was an inadequate response.
Remember, please, I am only talking the politics of the moment.
I know that putting POTUS on the scene of an ongoing disaster in New Orleans was not feasible—yeah, hey, let’s stop all the traffic (?!), divert the police, and place the Secret Service on the ground so POTUS can be here. That would have been stupid and pointless.
But it seems he could have stopped over in Baton Rouge and met with his commanders on the ground, the mayor, the governor, and taken the time to comfort some evacuees. The symbolism of the President flying over was awful, and it allowed all the stories of his detachment from the problem to fester. Think about it: he declares a state of emergency two days ahead of the storm, he asks permission (denied) to federalize ahead of the storm, he makes a personal phone call to beg for an evacuation, but somehow the story sticks that he was detached and aloof from the issues.
Somebody—like the famously Machiavellian Karl Rove—should have recognized that the Dems were laying in wait for a moment like this, and when the White House played into their hands, they pounced like a pack of hyenas on the slow wildebeest.
And then, after it has been obvious what the political fallout was starting to be, the White House is STILL not playing the game very well, at all. I thought a couple weeks ago that the reason for that was that the facts were so overwhelmingly on their side that they figured they could wait and let reality set in to change the perception. But, like concrete, the conventional wisdom hardened too quickly, and they did nothing to stir the pot. Like, what, it was a secret the MSM was going to try to take this presidency down? They’d been at that game for two years!
Like it or not, one of the symbolic jobs of POTUS is that of “comforter-in-chief.” We all saw how effective Bill Clinton was at that after Oklahoma City; we all remember Ronald Reagan’s words after the Challenger explosion; and we rallied behind this President after 9/11. This was another moment when the American people needed to see someone with the power to do something about it—perceived power, at least (we can talk federalism later)—down in the trenches empathizing with victims. And the White House blew it.
And, still, even now, the President has not re-captured the initiative by taking a bold move like Hugh Hewitt suggested; the White House still seems to be in a largely defensive posture and the facts don’t seem to matter very much. And this has only been exacerbated by the inexplicable appointment of Michael Brown to head FEMA. Of course, even that could have been dealt with had the political operation swung into gear quickly (“I’m sorry, David Gregory, but that’s not true; FEMA’s preparations for Katrina were just like their preparations for the quadruple-hurricane hit Florida took last year. Don’t you, in the press, have to ask yourself why it worked in Florida or is working in Mississippi but is not working in New Orleans? What’s the difference?), but they didn’t. So concerned with NOT playing politics that the other team had three touchdowns on them before they broke the huddle.
So, to explain the sub-title of this post: I’m all for keeping your eye on the ball. But when you’re playing the Oakland Raiders, you don’t go over the middle without a flak jacket, and that is precisely what the White House did here. In many respects, it’s their own fault that they’ve taken a cheap shot from a dirty team.
What frightens me is that this has given the Dems the opportunity to redefine “security” for all time. What once was about defending from hostile enemies is starting to become about responding to a crisis, and Hurricane Katrina is now the defining moment of the second term, if not the entire Presidency. And how dangerous would it be for the country to think responding to natural disasters was as important or more for the President than to press the war on terror and see it through to its inevitable conclusion? Picture a President John Kerry, on the ground in New Orleans and overrunning incompetent state bureaucrats to get things done in NO, while pressing for trials before the International Criminal Court for Saddam Hussein, Gitmo detainees and, someday, Osama bin Laden.
THAT is why this moment matters so much politically. The landscape may be changing regardless of the facts, and the White House had better begin to move to the high ground or we’re all gonna get buried.
UPDATE: Well, an up and a down. Down, though only a little: the President has taken responsibility for federal failures in the response to Katrina; up: the President is making a nationally televised speech to the nation on Thursday from New Orleans.
Better call in all speechwriting hands--get Robinson, Noonan, and anybody else with a good track record. This speech makes or breaks the second term.