Inescapable Accountability

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, September 9, 2005

The following is brought to you by the word "accountability."

Keep that word in mind whenever you hear defenders of President Bush accusing his political opponents of playing the "blame game" by daring to pose pointed questions about why so many people in New Orleans, most of them very poor, had to wait so long for relief from their suffering.

The Bush White House must have run the phrases "blame game" and "finger-pointing" through its focus groups. In his Wednesday briefing, White House press secretary Scott McClellan used variations on those formulations eight times each.

McClellan neatly rolled them into a single sentence when he told off a reporter who had the nerve to ask whether the president had confidence in those who oversaw the federal relief effort. "If you want to continue to engage in finger-pointing and blame-gaming, that's fine," McClellan harrumphed. Nice job, Scott.

McClellan must have been unaware that the White House had been organizing a finger-pointing, blame-gaming project of its own. "In a reflection of what has long been a hallmark of Mr. Rove's tough political style," Adam Nagourney and Anne E. Kornblut reported in Monday's New York Times, "the administration is also working to shift the blame away from the White House and toward officials of New Orleans and Louisiana who, as it happens, are Democrats."

The fruits of that project were quickly visible when White House apologists went to town against New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. Grover Norquist, one of Washington's most important conservative activists and a close Rove ally, blamed the chaos on "looting in a Democratic city run by a Democratic mayor and a Democratic governor." Surely McClellan will call Norquist to reprimand him about that awful finger-pointing.

Fox's Bill O'Reilly devoted one of his "Talking Points Memos" to denouncing Nagin and Blanco. True, he was "fair and balanced" in devoting a single sentence in his speech of roughly 500 words to Bush's role: "the Homeland Security office and President Bush were 24 hours late in taking decisive action." Thanks for that, Bill.

The White House is aghast because it is pulling levers that once worked, and nothing is happening.

To borrow one of O'Reilly's favorite phrases, New Orleans was a "No Spin Zone." Good, smart, tough and compassionate reporters gave Americans a direct view of the disaster and kept asking, with increasing urgency, why New Orleans was such a mess.

You can tell the White House knows how much trouble it is in -- that's no doubt why Bush had another news conference yesterday -- by following the Frank Theorem. "It's a rule in American politics," said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), "that whichever side denounces the other for politicizing the issue is losing the argument." Bingo.

Once, the White House could use its surrogates to intimidate critics. Especially after Sept. 11, Democrats were concerned -- for both patriotic and opportunistic reasons -- that certain criticisms of Bush might be seen as "giving aid and comfort to the enemy." You can't be accused of giving aid and comfort to a hurricane.

This crisis has been an exceptionally clear lesson in this White House's overall approach: Try to get everyone to believe that any criticism of the president will blow back on the critics because Americans just don't like that sort of thing. Attack "finger-pointing," and make sure your allies madly point fingers at your opponents.

Say no one should play politics with a disaster -- and then make sure Republican leaders in Congress set up a commission to investigate the relief effort without asking Democrats for their input on how the investigation should be carried out.

Bush's critics aren't backing off, because they've been here before. Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who cooperated with Bush in the days after Sept. 11 but lost his South Dakota seat after a long, White House-inspired campaign accusing him of being "obstructionist," speaks from experience.

"Democrats to this day remain outraged at the blatant efforts that Republicans, especially in the administration, made to undermine the perception of our patriotism and our motivations," Daschle said in an interview.

This time around, Democrats won't be waved off by right-wing commentators or by contrived and insincere appeals to national unity. "I don't think we should pay a whit of attention to administration criticisms," Daschle said. "Democrats need to ask the hard questions and ignore the political attacks that are destined to come when we ask them."

The sounds of contention you are hearing are the sounds of accountability in a free republic. The president may not like it, but it is a refreshing sound.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company