Katrina Darkens the Outlook for Incumbents

National Guard troops patrolling on New Orleans's Poland Street view graffiti reflecting voter discontent. Polls released yesterday show the president's job approval at an all-time low.
National Guard troops patrolling on New Orleans's Poland Street view graffiti reflecting voter discontent. Polls released yesterday show the president's job approval at an all-time low. (By Greg Pearson -- Shreveport Times Via Associated Press)
By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 11, 2005

Hurricane Katrina has the potential to foment change in Washington like the terrorist strikes did four years ago, altering the government's priorities for the foreseeable future and darkening the mood of an electorate that was already anxious before the storm hit shore, according to lawmakers, pollsters and strategists from both parties.

The dispute over Washington's role in saving lives in New Orleans and in the future threatens to make incumbents from both parties among Katrina's casualties, several officials said. With the popularity of Congress and President Bush sagging before the crisis, many officials said Bush and lawmakers made their situation worse by pointing fingers and digressing into political warfare with rescue operations still underway.

The aftermath of the past two weeks is almost certain to have a long echo. The billions of dollars already committed -- with many predicting the sum will eventually reach into the hundreds of billions -- is enough to make the New Orleans catastrophe a dominant factor in Washington's ritual battles over spending priorities for the balance of Bush's term. And the question of accountability -- fixing responsibility for what went wrong in the troubled early days of the rescue effort -- promises to color congressional debate for the next year or more.

Beyond these concrete impacts, some strategists expect Katrina to reshape the ideological premises of Washington debate in more subtle, but potentially more consequential, ways. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), in memos circulated among Republicans last week and in conversations with White House officials, argued that the party that offers bold ideas to modernize how government responds to crisis will be rewarded in future elections.

"Both parties have a great opportunity -- and a great risk," Gingrich said in an interview. "One of the two parties is going to be the party that brings the country into the 21st century . . . and you can't say today which party will win that battle."

John D. Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and head of a leading Democratic think tank, says Democrats must start by casting Bush's brand of conservatism -- emphasizing an "ownership society" elevating individualism and private enterprise -- as fundamentally flawed and hostile to society's collective responsibility to help citizens, especially the neediest.

In its place, Podesta says, Democrats must offer an activist, reform-minded government agenda that includes new energy, infrastructure and homeland defense policies.

Katrina "changed the future," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "Enough is enough: No more Bush-business-as-usual."

The emerging Democratic plan calls for a shift of resources away from Bush priorities, including lower taxes, to disaster preparedness, an approach that might gain traction with images of Katrina fresh in the minds of voters.

Although Democrats see opportunity, some of them acknowledge that Katrina's initial impact did not show anyone in Washington in the best light.

"When you get down to it, [voters] hate everyone right now," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Do you blame them? They feel let down."

This is potentially bad news for incumbents of all stripes, but Emanuel asserts the sour mood is more detrimental to the ruling Republican Party, in part because it scuffs what had been a core asset: a widespread belief that Bush was steady in crisis. Even some GOP strategists privately said they worry about Bush's political erosion. Bush's job- approval rating fell to the lowest of his presidency in two different polls released yesterday: 38 percent in the latest Newsweek Poll and to 42 percent in the Time Poll. "Incumbents in both parties are dancing perilously close to the edge right now: Gas prices are out of control, we are bogged down in Iraq and now politicians seem to be doing more talking than acting," said David Gergen, a presidential scholar who has served in GOP and Democratic administrations. "We may be heading toward an election in which the attitude is to throw the bums out, and if that happens, Republicans will pay the bigger prices because they are in control."

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