Hurricane Isaac may be blowing past the Republican convention in Tampa, but the storm still has the potential to do major damage to the GOP brand, and in turn, Mitt Romney.
Not only has a pack of reporters left the Republican National Convention to cover the hurricane instead of the Romney nominating convention, but the track of the storm puts it on a course eerily similar to that of Hurricane Katrina.
The weeks after Katrina seven years ago, including FEMA's painfully slow response, marked one of the darkest periods in George W. Bush's presidency and helped lead to a historically low level of Americans' trust in their own government.
While a Gallup survey shortly after 9/11 had found 60 percent of people feeling they could trust the government "to do what is right always or most of the time," a Pew poll in the wake of Hurricane Katrina found that number had dropped to 31 percent. Today it's down to 22 percent. If Isaac endangers New Orleans, the events could trigger flashbacks for voters of how a small-government Republican president failed to make the federal government function properly at the most basic levels.
Isaac also gives Democrats an opening, if they want it, to highlight Republicans' recent pattern of trying to slash funds for both FEMA and NOAA, the federal agency that tracks hurricanes and coordinates storm warnings, along with the rest of discretionary spending as a part of their deficit reduction plans. In the fall of 2011, Republicans and Democrats nearly triggered a government shutdown with a fight over FEMA funding.
Democrats wanted emergency money for FEMA to respond to Hurricane Irene, but Republicans insisted that the new spending be offset by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget, a requirement Republicans had ignored for years under President Bush. Only an announcement from the FEMA director that he could make do with the money he already had averted the shutdown in the end.
While the GOP members in the House said they were just being responsible with taxpayers' dollars, one Republican disagreed-- Gov. Chris Cristie, who slammed Congress for dragging out emergency funding for his state and others trying to deal with Irene's aftermath. “Our people are suffering now, and they need support now,” Christie said, according to The Wall Street Journal. “And [Congress] can all go down there and get back to work and figure out budget cuts later.”
Earlier in 2011, the House Appropriations Committee had also voted to cut NOAA's Hurricane Hunter program by 40 percent, while FEMA First Responder grants were cut by $816 million and the FEMA National Pre-disaster Mitigation Fund lost $50 million in the Republican plan. But does any of this affect the GOP ticket? It could, since Rep. Paul Ryan's most recent budget also made major cuts to "Function 450" funds, which pay for domestic programs including FEMA. The Ryan budget passed the House 228 to 191, but died in the Senate. But the debate over the size and scope of the federal government-- along with who should pay for it all-- has continued and is now the central question in this year's presidential election.
While cuts to FEMA could be difficult to explain, a silver lining in the Isaac clouds for Republicans (other than everyone's hope that it loses steam before it makes landfall) is proving to be Louisiana's Gov. Bobby Jindal, a close Romney ally who has built a career on trying to make government function. Jindal announced Monday that he will skip his planned prime-time address to the RNC on Wednesday to stay at home and focus on Isaac preparations and recovery. "There will be a time for politics later," he told a news conference, where he also laid out evacuations, closures and contingency plans in excruciating detail.
As much as the Bush administration, FEMA's Michael Brown, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin projected incompetence in 2005, Jindal has shown his own steady hand in the storms that have already come to Louisiana. He has also demonstrated the political acumen to know when people want to talk politics, and when-- even during his party's biggest event this election cycle-- people want to see leadership from their elected officials and competence from the government they pay for.
"My priority is the safety of our people," Jindal said Sunday. "I'm not going anywhere."
That's a message Democrats and Republicans would both do well to repeat.