While the rest of us are still shell-shocked over the mass casualties of Katrina, Pat Robertson says John Roberts can "be thankful that a tragedy has brought him some good."

Thankful? (Because America won't want any "inflamed rhetoric" at the hearings, the televangelist says.) Not the most sensitive comment I can imagine, with more than half of New Orleans inundated with disease-laden water and an untold number of bodies still to be pulled out.

But it is also undeniable that the killer hurricane is changing the climate in which next week's hearings will be held--both in terms of political rhetoric and by blowing out most news coverage that doesn't have a New Orleans or Biloxi dateline. In fact, even though we're talking about the next chief justice of the United States, much of the blog chatter this week has been about Katrina, not John.

In that narrow sense, President Bush's decision to elevate his nominee to the top court seat after William H. Rehnquist's death was a shrewd move. The media consensus by last week was that Roberts, the affable conservative and former Reagan White House lawyer, was a sure bet for confirmation.

By upgrading the appellate judge to his nominee for chief while the entire country is focused on the hurricane, Bush does nothing to disturb the Washington expectation that Roberts is a shoo-in (there are, after all, 55 Republican senators) and guarantees a modest level of coverage. He avoids a messy battle over another nominee--required even if that person is already a member of the Supremes, a la Scalia--and can name his second nominee (for O'Connor's seat) down the road, perhaps after the vote on confirming Roberts.

Given the polarization in the country (a Washington Post poll finds 74 percent of GOPers approving of Bush's handling of Katrina and just 17 percent of Democrats), the opposition party is trying to tie the two story lines together. Senate Dems, reports the Boston Globe | http://www.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2005/09/07/democrats_shift_strategy_on_roberts/, say "they will invoke the vast disparities in income and living conditions laid bare by the Hurricane Katrina disaster to sharpen their questioning of Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. at his confirmation hearings next week.

"The scenes of devastation featuring primarily poor African-American residents in New Orleans have highlighted the widening gap between rich and poor, said Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

"With Roberts having urged a narrow interpretation of civil rights laws in the past, Senate Democrats will link the scenes of economic hardship with the constitutional and legal issues that surround efforts to address racial and economic inequalities, he said . . . In addition, civil rights leaders whom Democrats have called to appear at the hearings said they also intend to refer to the scenes from the hurricane-ravaged region."

With the Roberts nomination, fairly or unfairly, seen as lacking drama, much of the media chatter has focused on whom Bush will pick for the other vacancy. The oft-quoted Bill Kristol | http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/006/016gklcg.asp, editor of the Weekly Standard, says Bush has complicated his own strategy--and he fears a Gonzales selection:

"With John Roberts sailing toward confirmation last week, President Bush had the O'Connor seat 'won.' The Court was set to move one click to the right (so to speak). Then Chief Justice William Rehnquist died. The president chose to move Roberts over to fill the Rehnquist slot -- thereby re-opening the vacancy created by Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement.

"One understands the attraction of Roberts as chief. But with this action, in one fell swoop, the president deprived himself and his supporters of the easiest argument for his next nominee: that surely a re-elected conservative president is entitled to replace a conservative justice--Rehnquist--with another conservative.

"So now everything rides on Bush's nerve. Is he willing to fill the O'Connor seat with a conservative, and can he then make an effective case for that nominee to the Senate and the country?"

Bush, however, "may be rattled by the criticism for mishandling Hurricane Katrina, and he may think it would be better to avoid a big fight over the court. He's always wanted to nominate his attorney general, Alberto Gonzales--he likes him, is loyal to him, and would appreciate the symbolism of putting the first Hispanic on the court. So he might be sorely tempted to do so now.

"Would any of his aides have the nerve to tell him that as Supreme Court jurists go, Gonzales would be mediocre--and not a solid bet to move the court in a constitutionalist direction? Would any of them have the nerve to explain to the president that a Gonzales nomination would utterly demoralize many of his supporters, who are sticking with him and his party, through troubles in Iraq and screw-ups with Katrina, precisely because they want a few important things out of a Bush presidency--and one of these is a more conservative court? Would any of them tell the president that risking a core item in the conservative agenda for the sake of either friendship, diversity, or short-term political spin, would be substantively wrong, and politically disastrous?"

Would any of them dare to include a copy of Kristol's piece in the White House clips?

Ron Brownstein | http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-assess8sep08,0,1881418.story?coll=la-home-headlines agrees in the LAT that Bush may have overplayed his hand:

"Some analysts in both parties contend it would be more difficult for the White House to fill the O'Connor seat with anyone else as conservative as Roberts -- whose affable manner, limited paper trail and sterling legal credentials frustrated opponents trying to organize against him.

"With Bush's new move, he may have enlisted Roberts for a job that others could have done: winning confirmation as a conservative replacement for the staunchly conservative Rehnquist. Meanwhile, Bush may have diverted Roberts from a mission for which he appeared unusually well-suited: winning confirmation to succeed O'Connor."

On the liberal side, Ezra Klein | http://ezraklein.typepad.com/blog/2005/09/chief_justice_r.html sees a dilemma for the Dems:

"This is a very, very savvy move by Bush. If the Senate had confirmed Roberts but not made him chief, Stevens, a liberal, would've become acting chief by virtue of seniority, and when the session opened, unless a Chief could be hustled onto the Court, liberals would have held as many seats as conservatives and they'd be setting the agenda. Roberts, too, is young, he'll have the power to reshape and direct the Court for four or five decades -- that's some [expletive] appointment for a guy who's only been a judge for two years!.

"If they lay down for Roberts, given the gravity and meaning of his appointment, Bush will be freed to nominate whomever he wants."

Scott Shields at MyDD | http://www.mydd.com/story/2005/9/5/104035/4455 questions whether opposition can be based on ideology:

"Roberts had been O'Connor's replacement. Now he's Rehnquist's. As my wife points out, this gives the lie to the GOP claim that Roberts is a moderate. If he's conservative enough to replace Rehnquist, he's no moderate.

"By the same token, can we continue to oppose Roberts because he's not a moderate? I never thought that was the best criticism to begin with. If Kerry had been elected, would he have been expected to nominate a conservative to replace the conservative Rehnquist?"

At Captain's Quarters | http://www.captainsquartersblog.com/mt/archives/005382.php, Ed Morrissey nominates the next nominee:

"Janice Rogers Brown has just taken her place on the DC Circuit court, the same appellate bench from which Roberts served prior to his nomination. However, unlike Roberts, she served for several years on a state Supreme Court, that of the nation's most populous state, California. Her background gives her near-impeccable conservative status while presenting enough flexibility for libertarian leanings. Rather than hiding herself through judicial inscrutability, she has a long and public track record of her philosophies, and document demands will place no particular strain on the process.

"But apart from all of that, a Brown nomination would put the Democrats in a very difficult position -- one which they desperately tried to avoid by filibustering her for four years. As a black female vying for the first such appointment to the Supreme Court, she would create a huge headache for all of those who assailed Bush for nominating a white male from a 'privileged' background to replace Sandra Day O'Connor."

The Nation's David Corn | http://www.davidcorn.com/archives/2005/09/the_death_of_wi.php also sees the appeal of Brown:

"How about Janice Rogers Brown, an African-American woman and sharecropper's daughter who is now a far-right California state judge (who seems to hate the federal government)? After all the recent talk about poor black people being shafted in New Orleans by the US government, Bush might enjoy standing in the Oval Office with Brown and talking about her personal story."

Blogs for Bush | http://www.blogsforbush.com/mt/archives/005311.html objects to the Democratic vow to take the Roberts nomination even more seriously:

"Anyone could have anticipated the Democrats would want 'increased scrutiny of Roberts' now that he's been nominated for Chief Justice . . . Like looking into the adoption records of Roberts' children? 'Greater scrutiny' is just a euphemism for mudslinging."

Former Clinton aide David Kusnet | http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=w050905&s=kusnet090605 has some tactical advice for his party:

"Democrats would also do well to avoid elaborate explorations of Roberts's views on such legal theories as 'original intent' and 'strict construction,' which, while raising questions about conservative indifference to everyday people, can also prompt debates about liberal activism. Instead, they should explore to what extent Roberts would limit the federal government's authority to regulate business under the Constitution's Commerce Clause -- an ultra-conservative doctrine that would restrict protections of workers and consumers. To put it bluntly, when Americans are thinking about issues like overtime pay, liberals win; when the issue is school prayer, liberals lose.

"Perhaps even more important, Roberts's memoranda as a rising young official in the Justice Department and the White House Counsel's office during the Reagan administration present him as a savvy but cynical political operative -- someone with the intellectual firepower but not the passion for justice that Americans demand of the chief justice.

"Democratic Senators should read these memos aloud, pausing on phrases such as 'the so-called right to privacy,' 'the so-called gender gap' in women's pay, and 'purported' and 'perceived' discrimination against women. Taken in their totality, these memos are chilling because Roberts reveals more passion against grammatical errors than social ills. Next week, a Democratic senator should ask whether Americans want the Supreme Court led by a man who knows the proper usage of many words but not the meaning of justice."

The Note | http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/TheNote/story?id=156238 says the hurricane story will have a huge impact on the administration, beyond the blame game:

"Katrina is such a big, swirling, all-consuming story, that the President's life IS changed for the foreseeable future.

"He can't pass Social Security. He can't be seen doing any other work. He can't go biking (we think).

"Even in the first half of 2001, even when the press wouldn't fully acknowledge him as President of the United States, the White House wasn't in a hole like this.

"Much of his agenda is incongruous with the pictures we are seeing behind Oprah in the Astrodome. The political advice of the Wall Street Journal ed board notwithstanding, this is not a politically smart time to talk tax cuts for the wealthiest."

Speaking of the blame game--and that's the White House line, that we shouldn't try to affix blame, at least not right now--Arianna Huffington | http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/george-bush-david-caruso_b_6950.html is firmly pro-blame:

"Look, if we've learned anything from watching shows like CSI, Law & Order, and their endless progeny, it's that you can't let a crime scene grow cold. You've got to start collecting and analyzing the evidence while the DNA is still fresh and let David Caruso or Vincent D'Onofrio start sweating the perps while the passions are still running high. And make no mistake, what we saw go down -- and not go down -- in New Orleans was definitely a crime . . . a crime that is in many ways still in progress.

"Sixty percent of the city remains underwater; up to 160,000 homes in the state of Louisiana have been submerged or destroyed; 60 to 90 million tons of solid waste need to cleaned up; experts warn that it make take 'years' to fully restore clean drinking water; and an outbreak of vibrio vulnificus--a cholera-like bacterial disease--has been reported among some Katrina evacuees.

"This is clearly going to be a very long recovery process. And the sooner we've identified those responsible for the Katrina tragedy, the sooner we can make sure they're not around to screw up the recovery.

So, yes, now is precisely the time for assessing blame. Let a thousand pointed fingers bloom!"

Tom Friedman | http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/07/opinion/07friedman.html?hp gives the geopolitical analysis:

"If 9/11 put the wind at President Bush's back, Katrina's put the wind in his face. If the Bush-Cheney team seemed to be the right guys to deal with Osama, they seem exactly the wrong guys to deal with Katrina -- and all the rot and misplaced priorities it's exposed here at home.

"These are people so much better at inflicting pain than feeling it, so much better at taking things apart than putting them together."

Lots of online chatter about this Salt Lake Tribune | http://www.sltrib.com/utah/ci_3004197 piece:

"As New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pleaded on national television for firefighters-- his own are exhausted after working around the clock for a week-- a battalion of [1,000] highly trained men and women sat idle Sunday in a muggy Sheraton Hotel conference room in Atlanta. Many of the firefighters, assembled from Utah and throughout the United States by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, thought they were going to be deployed as emergency workers. Instead, they have learned they are going to be community-relations officers for FEMA, shuffled throughout the Gulf Coast region to disseminate fliers and a phone number: 1-800-621-FEMA.

"A team of 50 Monday morning quickly was ushered onto a flight headed for Louisiana. The crew's first assignment: to stand beside President Bush as he tours devastated areas."

Well, that was a political emergency, wasn't it?

LAT columnist Max Boot | http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/opinion/la-oe-boot7sep07,1,1575505.column?coll=la-news-comment has had it with what the White House likes to call the blame game:

"No sooner had Hurricane Katrina roared through Louisiana and adjacent states than every blockhead with a microphone or a word processor felt compelled to spout off about What It All Means--and, more important, Who Is to Blame . . . "Ordinary people are sitting at home, transfixed by the spectacle unfolding on their television screens. Their hearts are breaking as they watch the horrifying spectacle of an entire city drowned. . . .

"What must they think of the talking heads who treat this as if it were another bit of minor grist for the political mills? As if this were another story about some politician's war record or a nominee's nanny issues. The callowness now on display goes a long way toward explaining why politicians and the media are held in public esteem somewhere above child molesters and below bankers."

Salon's Eric Boehlert, a charter member of the press-is-soft-on-Bush camp, has a far different view:

"The fact that this kind of aggressive questioning of people in power during times of crisis now passes as news itself only highlights just how timid the mainstream press corps has been during the Bush years.

"Is it too much to ask for Russert to just once have shown the same passion-- or even hint of outrage--when interviewing Vice President Dick Cheney about the administration's botched occupation of Iraq in which nearly 2,000 Americans have died? ('How could the president be so wrong, so misinformed?' Russert could have demanded.) Imagine if the press had shown a glimmer of its newfound truth-telling fervor while pursuing the WMD fiasco or uncovering the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth hoax last year, or half a dozen lesser episodes in which the Bush White House mugged the truth and the press knew it but then looked away.

"It's hard to decide which is more troubling: that it took the national press corps five years to summon up enough courage to report, without apology, that what the Bush administration says and does are often two different things, or that it took the sight of bodies floating facedown in the streets of New Orleans to trigger a change in the press's behavior."

By the way, I excerpted a Salon piece yesterday in which writer Stephen Elliott says he was told that Geraldo Rivera rescued an elderly woman twice, needing a retake for the cameras. Fox News says that's absolutely, positively not true.