Clinton Draws Heat in Role Of a Conspicuous Critic

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, shown meeting with evacuees in Houston, wants FEMA to be independent again.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, shown meeting with evacuees in Houston, wants FEMA to be independent again. (By Pat Sullivan -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 8, 2005

The raging debate over what happened after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast has provided Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) an opportunity to emerge as a national spokeswoman for the Democratic Party, stirring Republican criticism that she and other Democrats are seeking political gain at a moment of national crisis.

Clinton has long maintained that she is focused solely on serving the interests of her New York constituents. But she was on all three network morning shows yesterday to promote her call for returning the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to independent status, and for creating an independent commission to investigate what went wrong when the storm hit and the levees gave way in New Orleans.

Her high-profile role, which Republicans say is tinged with 2008 presidential politics, has created a potentially sensitive situation for her husband, former president Bill Clinton. President Bush has tapped him to join with former president George H.W. Bush in reprising the role they played last winter raising private money for Asian tsunami victims. Clinton does not want to jeopardize what has become both a working relationship and a friendship with the elder Bush.

But even the former president, in a more gentle way, has raised questions about the federal government's response in what has rapidly become an quarrel between the Clinton and Bush administrations over disaster relief and preparedness, and the role of government. Privately, Clinton has been incredulous over what he regards as the administration's failure to grasp quickly the perilous situation materializing in New Orleans, particularly for poor African Americans.

Other Democrats, lead by Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) have been far more strident than the Clintons -- so much so that both Republican and Democratic strategists said yesterday the opposition party is in danger of overplaying its hand. The harsh rhetoric, the strategists said, could create a backlash among the public and engender sympathy for a president who has been on the defensive much of the past week.

Pelosi yesterday described Bush as "oblivious, in denial, dangerous" to problems in and around New Orleans, and to what she said were his administration's failures in their response. Reid urged a Senate investigating committee to probe whether Bush's out-of-town vacation contributed to what has been judged as a slow response by the federal government.

Lending further evidence that Katrina is rapidly becoming a war between the parties, the political action committee of announced a public rally across from the White House this afternoon. It is to include evacuees demanding the president "acknowledge that budget cuts and indifference by his administration led to the disaster in New Orleans and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast."

Hillary Clinton has no formal role as a designated spokeswoman on the disaster, but by virtue of her celebrity status and her presumed presidential ambitions, she attracts attention when she chooses to speak out.

Both she and her husband began to sound public alarms last Friday during a joint appearance at the New York State Fair, but their criticism, particularly by the former first lady, has grown increasingly pointed. During a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, she accused the administration of rejecting the Clinton administration's policy giving FEMA responsibility to prepare state and local communities for disaster relief, and to lead when disasters occur.

"They do believe that people should rely on state and local response and private charities," she said. "I think that is a recipe for disaster. . . . There was nobody in charge in the federal government, and there was nobody willing to take responsibility to work with state and local officials to make sure they were prepared."

Asked on NBC's "Today Show" about criticism from Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, who accused her of seeking political gain at what he said should be a moment of national unity, she replied: "Well, you know, that's what they always do. We've been living with that kind of rhetoric for the last 4 1/2 years. . . . Every time anyone raises any kind of legitimate criticism and asks questions, they're attacked."

One Clinton adviser said the New York senator has chosen to speak out so forcefully in large part because of her longstanding opposition to the shift of FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security, and because of her concerns that an ill-prepared FEMA poses problems for her constituents in a state regarded as a prime target of terrorist attacks.

In addition, she and her husband consider the performance of FEMA under James Lee Witt, its former director and a fellow Arkansan, to be one of the true success stories of the Clinton administration. The Clintons believe the agency has been degraded under Bush.

The image of one administration pitted against another has been reinforced by the weekend decision of Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) to hire Witt as an adviser in the relief efforts. Blanco squabbled with the White House in the first few days after Katrina struck, and Witt's arrival was widely see as a direct criticism of the administration.

Clinton allies say anger over FEMA's performance and a belief that the Bush administration has harmed the agency motivated the senator to jump into the debate. From a purely political point of view, they say, it might have been wiser to maintain a lower profile.

Having raised her visibility, she is now a clear target. "It's interesting that at a time when she could have differentiated herself from the ranks of [Democratic National Committee Chairman] Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi and the far left ranks of the Democratic Party, she chose to join those on the front ranks of the blame game," said RNC spokesman Brian Jones. "It would have been interesting if she had shown some level of restraint."

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