By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 26, 2005
Where rebuilding New Orleans and Gulf communities was seen as a national priority in the days after Hurricane Katrina hit -- most tangibly when lawmakers approved $62 billion in aid just two weeks later -- Congress's race to complete a new round of reconstruction aid this month became fodder for politics-as-usual in the capital, and in increasingly strong tones.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) lumped Congress's slow rebuilding response into an attack on a Republican "culture of corruption and cronyism, coverup . . . and incompetence," which she later said "caused so much more loss of life and damage in the Gulf Coast."
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) faulted President Bush's efforts to restore housing, small businesses, health care, education and minority voting rights to storm victims. Pelosi applied the word "failure" or some variant to the administration 44 times in an 11-page report.
Republicans have responded in kind. Condemning a Democratic push to subpoena top administration aides for e-mails as part of a House investigation into the Katrina response, Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) said, "Let's pierce the political veil here. There should be no doubt that the purpose of this motion" is to protect Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) "to try to somehow shift all this back over to the White House."
Behind the rhetoric of blame is a reality reflected in polls. Democrats and many independents see the rebuilding of New Orleans and reconstruction of the Gulf Coast region as an important or top priority. For Republicans, it is less clear-cut.
In some ways, the nation's response to Katrina is cleaving the public down partisan lines as a domestic issue, just as Iraq has on foreign policy. Both issues have become polarizing, rather than unifying, issues for the country, said Glen Bolger, a pollster for Hill Republicans.
According to a poll this month for the Hotline political newsletter, which asked whether Congress should tackle Iraq or the Katrina recovery first in 2006, Americans wanted the Gulf Coast rebuilt by 58 percent to 28 percent.
Democratic and independent voters generally agreed on addressing Katrina's problems, while self-identified Republicans chose Iraq, 46 percent to 37 percent. "No matter what the Bush administration does, the public is never going to believe they're doing everything they can in the Gulf," said Hotline editor Chuck Todd. "That's the box the administration is in."
The reconstruction fuses economic and domestic issues on which Democrats traditionally fare better than Republicans -- including jobs, education, health care and civil rights -- much as the GOP gains in debates over war and terrorism.
"This is the ultimate mommy party issue, if you believe that Democrats are the mommy party and Republicans are the daddy party," Todd said. Bush and the GOP have trouble dealing with the Katrina debate, just as Democrats have had less credibility on national security, he said.
Partisan political calculations are also shaping a clash of visions of how New Orleans should be rebuilt, said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, who heads the Theodore Roosevelt Center at the city's Tulane University.
Bush's decision "to keep Katrina under the radar screen" and "dribble out aid" is driven by a fear of overseeing a costly foreign war and a massive domestic initiative simultaneously, Brinkley said, just as Vietnam and the Great Society program consumed the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.
Republicans look at New Orleans and see Galveston, Tex., which in 1900 was the state's largest city and the Gulf's largest port before 8,000 residents were killed by a hurricane, Brinkley said . That city was supplanted by Houston, and Brinkley believes Republicans consider it less costly to remake New Orleans as a smaller city based on tourism and its port. It could be surpassed by Baton Rouge, which is nearer Houston's petrochemical industry, set on the Mississippi River and easier to protect from future storms, Brinkley said.
Democrats see such a move as no less than a GOP takeover, one that would effectively gut Democrat-dominated New Orleans and undermine the party's hold on a governorship and Senate seat south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Brinkley said there is a cultural split as well. Some argue that New Orleans must be restored to preserve its place in black history and American culture, as well as its fusion of French, Caribbean and Southern traditions. Others see that as less important, because of the cost.
"Right now, I think it's more the Bush administration view which is winning," Brinkley said, "but by putting a lot of pressure on, the Democrats are getting concessions."
The political reaction to Katrina is far different from the nation's response four months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. For one thing, there is no obvious enemy at which to vent public rage. In 2001, Bolger said, "We went to Afghanistan, we beat the bejeezus out of the Taliban. . . . It's hard to say, 'Let's launch the Marines after Mother Nature, and let's punish her.' "
Another complicating factor is the immensity of the rebuilding effort. Katrina killed more than 1,300 people; it destroyed nearly 10 times as many homes as Hurricane Andrew in 1992, 270,000 compared with 28,000; and it caused $40 billion in insured losses, vs. $21 billion for Andrew, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
To be sure, Washington has been at work. Before leaving for the year, Congress passed a $29 billion hurricane relief bill that mainly redirects previously approved funds toward economic development and restoring federal facilities, as well as an $8 billion tax relief bill for Gulf Coast businesses. The White House and Congress delivered $2.9 billion to strengthen New Orleans's levee system.
Congressional attention inevitably wanes, however. Members running for reelection next year from other states are unlikely to have to answer for the recovery.
"I think the country has moved beyond Katrina at this point," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), former House GOP campaign head and now chairman of the House investigation of the response.
For Bush, the storm poses both a lasting challenge and an opportunity, analysts said. History may remember his post-Sept. 11 rallying cry to firefighters from a bullhorn atop the rubble of the World Trade Center. But Katrina has frozen a less-flattering image of Bush telling an overwhelmed, stumbling political ally, former federal emergency chief Michael D. Brown, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."
Having blown the crisis, Bush can only rebound, said Todd, who faulted him for not returning to New Orleans. Brinkley said Bush can still replace an image of callousness with compassion by ensuring "a great American city does not die."
Even those who have differed with Bush's domestic priorities express similar sentiments. Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans and president of the National Urban League, noted that after years of chilly relations, Bush and top aides have met twice this month and once in September with civil rights and black leaders.
"We certainly eagerly await the State of the Union to see what else is talked about in coming days," Morial said, praising Bush's levee announcement. "I think this [Katrina] is going to be an overriding domestic issue, and I think it's only going to increase in its significance."