Partisan Squabble or Dereliction of Duty?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Thursday, September 8, 2005; 2:51 PM

White House officials must be breathing a sigh of relief about the news coverage this morning that increasingly depicts the controversy over the government's response to the Gulf Coast disaster as a largely -- or even purely -- partisan issue.

If the initial sense of public outrage really becomes just another red vs. blue battle, then President Bush is likely to emerge no better or worse off than he was before.

By contrast, the nightmare scenario for the White House is if it becomes generally agreed upon that the public sense of horror -- from red states and blue states alike -- requires an immediate accounting of what went wrong. Because there is plenty of blame to go around and some -- if not a lot -- will inevitably land at Bush's feet.

Is holding those accountable a partisan issue? To some degree, evidently so. The leading voices demanding answers from the federal government have mostly been Democratic, while Republican leaders are pointing fingers at local officials. And polls show that party affiliation has an enormous effect on people's initial opinion on whether Bush has conducted himself admirably or not.

But the heartfelt disappointment and poignant questions about the rescue efforts may in fact be spilling forth from a wider, nonpartisan American vein. For example, many rank and file Congressional Republicans remain publicly aghast at the federal government's response.

Polarizing the electorate has been a successful strategy for this White House. That's not what they fear. But if the poll numbers start to shift precipitously -- and if even a chunk of Bush's core supporters come to the conclusion that he dropped the ball -- then Katrina could be something new for the White House. And something very dangerous indeed.

When Democrats Attack

Adam Nagourney and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "After 10 days of often uncertain responses to the Bush administration's management of Hurricane Katrina, Democratic leaders unleashed a burst of attacks on the White House on Wednesday, saying the wreckage in New Orleans raised doubts about the country's readiness to endure a terrorist attack and exposed ominous economic rifts that they said had worsened under five years of Republican rule. . . .

"The aggressiveness was evidence of what Republicans and Democrats said was the critical difference between the hurricane and the Sept. 11 attacks: Democrats appear able to question the administration's competence without opening themselves to attacks on their patriotism.

"Not insignificantly, they have been emboldened by the fact that Republicans have also been critical of the White House over the past week, and by the perception that this normally politically astute and lethal administration has been weakened and seems at a loss as it struggles to manage two crises: the aftermath of the hurricane on the Gulf Coast and the political difficulties that it has created for Mr. Bush in Washington."

Jennifer Loven and David Espo write in the Associated Press: "Congress' top two Democrats furiously criticized the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina on Wednesday, with Sen. Harry Reid demanding to know whether President Bush's Texas vacation impeded relief efforts and Rep. Nancy Pelosi assailing the chief executive as "oblivious, in denial" about the difficulties. . . .

"At a news conference, Pelosi, D-Calif., said Bush's choice for head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency had 'absolutely no credentials.' "She related that she had urged Bush at the White House on Tuesday to fire Michael Brown.

" 'He said "Why would I do that?' " Pelosi said.

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