You might imagine that the worst thing that could happen before this year’s Republican National Convention was a hurricane that threatened New Orleans. After all, President Bush’s popularity never recovered after the way his administration handled Katrina. Republicans want to keep the word “Katrina” out of the news as much as they want to keep the word “surge” in circulation. (As for the word “experience,” well, things recently got complicated on that one.)
John McCain high command was wise to cancel the convention’s first night, for at least three reasons.
First, the news networks were already going wall-to-wall on the hurricane, so the convention would not have gotten much play anyway.
Second, the organizers conveniently solved the problem of what to do about the role of Bush and Vice President Cheney. As my friend Harold Meyerson noted: “Bush and Cheney have an excuse not to attend; they will not rain on McCain's parade. Phew! Close one!”
Third, McCain can now get out the and look thoughtful and concerned, and he can seem ready to act -- even though a single senator has no real control over how relief and recovery efforts will go. McCain is trying to project an image here (no crime in that, it’s what presidential candidates do). He wants voters to see him as very different from the George Bush of three years ago.
I am certain that both McCain and Barack Obama are sincerely worried about the people who live in the Gulf. But please: Let’s can the false piety about the cutting back of the convention showing that McCain or anyone else is “above politics.” Everything done here in St. Paul this week will be carefully calculated for its political impact. Obama will also be calculating the political impact of what he does this week. Both candidates would be crazy not to think about the effect of this storm on the election. Both will be trying to look as if they are handling this situation with strength and sensitivity. And you can be sure there will be a lot of jockeying between these campaigns over who is dealing with Gustav in a more “presidential” way. The same people pushing the line that there’s no politics going on will be the ones playing politics most fiercely.
Already, you can anticipate the politics around the next stage of events. If McCain, but not Obama, were to fly down to the Gulf, the GOP would say this shows McCain’s “leadership,” while his critics would argue, as Paul Krugman does in his New York Times column today, that a McCain visit “wouldn’t do anything to help the area recover” but would “tie up air traffic and disrupt relief efforts.” I imagine that if the roles were reversed, the same arguments would be offered the other way around.
In general, I agree with Krugman’s point, and I write this before knowing either candidate’s plans: I hope neither McCain nor Obama goes down there right away. Let the relief workers do their work. And let’s hope the days after Gustav turn out better for the people of the Gulf than the aftermath of Katrina did.
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