Katrina Darkens the Outlook for Incumbents
Public Dismay Could Shape 2006 Elections

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."

In such an atmosphere, neither side sees a benefit in compromise or rhetorical restraint -- as last week's rush of Katrina-inspired partisan invective made plain.

"As the middle dissipates in American politics, there is a tendency to see the other side as even more dangerous because there is such a radical shift if they are in power," Gergen said.

It is too early to determine whether the public's gloomy mood spells trouble for elected officials next year, but Frank Newport of the nonpartisan Gallup Organization said his surveys have shown a strong majority of Americans unhappy with Bush and Congress even before Katrina. Only about 35 percent of Americans have said they approve of Congress's performance throughout the summer, citing the war and gas prices as their chief gripes.

"In 2006, if there isn't some turn of events, Iraq combined with Katrina and the large budget deficits to follow will create an opportunity for non-incumbents to move in," said James A. Thurber, a political scientist professor at American University.

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg briefed a group of Capitol Hill Democrats last week on the political fallout of Katrina, telling them Bush is losing support and that Democrats stand to benefit from the public's discontent next November if they manage the Katrina aftermath shrewdly, participants said.

Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y), the top strategist for House Republicans, said the GOP has two factors working in its favor: The public may dislike Congress, but voters generally like their own representative and, unlike a decade ago, there are only 30 or so House seats that are truly competitive.

The one thing Republicans and Democrats agree on is voters will reward or punish them based on how they respond to the devastating natural disaster in the weeks and months ahead.

GOP congressional leaders, concerned about a backlash to the massive spending ahead and the president's performance over the past 10 days, are lobbying Bush to lay out a long-term vision that would be announced in an address to the nation, several leadership aides said. One issue being debated inside the White House is whether to offer victims "portable benefits" such as education assistance they can carry with them if they decide to relocate outside of the Gulf Coast region.

One new issue that will be addressed is assistance to minorities living in big cities, often the forgotten demographic in political wars focused on the middle-class Americans who vote in higher numbers and live in competitive regions. Republicans are laying preliminary plans for tax-friendly business zones in low-income areas, an idea that was popular among conservatives in the late 1990s, and expanding education programs targeted at the neediest.

Democrats see Katrina uprooting the entire budget debate, making it virtually impossible for Republicans to reduce the size of programs such as Medicaid or any other funding aimed at the poor for months to come. A senior House GOP leadership aide said Democrats are probably right.

Yet much remains unresolved about the Democratic alternative. Will they drop their campaign for smaller deficits to fund an activist government? Will they raises taxes? Will they call for a pullout from Iraq to shift funds to homeland protection?

As Sept. 11, 2001, led to the creation of committees, probes and even a new federal agency, the natural disaster is likely to lead to a broad rethinking of governmental priorities in a time of turmoil and change. Issues such as mass evacuations, domestic deployment of troops and the restoration of wetlands will assume the prominence of anthrax vaccinations and subway alert systems held in the fall of 2001. Many predict a natural-disaster czar will emerge with power similar to homeland security chief.

Ultimately, some strategists believe the details of individual debates will matter less than a cumulative judgment about effectiveness. "The public is going to look in coming months and year and say how have leaders responded to this . . . and what have they done" to protect the nation, said Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company