When terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001, Americans came together in grief and resolve, rallying behind President Bush in an extraordinary show of national unity. But when Hurricane Katrina hit last week, the opposite occurred, with Americans dividing along sharply partisan lines in their judgment of the president's and the federal government's response.
The starkly different verdicts on Bush's stewardship of the two biggest crises of his presidency underscore the deepening polarization of the electorate that has occurred on his watch. This gaping divide has left the president with no reservoir of good will among his political opponents at a critical moment of national need and has touched off a fresh debate about whether he could have done anything to prevent it.
To his critics, Bush is now reaping what he has sown. Their case against him goes as follows: Facing a divided nation, the president has eschewed unity in both his governing strategy and his political blueprint. These opponents argue that he has favored confrontation over conciliation with the Democrats while favoring a set of policies aimed at deepening support among his conservative base at the expense of ideas that might produce bipartisan consensus and broader approval among the voters. His allies and advisers, while acknowledging that polarization has worsened during the past five years, say the opposition party bears the brunt of responsibility. Democrats, by this reckoning, have rebuffed Bush's efforts at bipartisanship, put up a wall to ideas that once enjoyed some support on their side, and, even in the current crisis along the Gulf Coast, are seeking to score political points rather than joining hands with the president to speed the recovery and relief to the victims.
Wherever reality lies between these mutual recriminations, the path from post-9/11 unity to the rancor and finger-pointing in the aftermath of Katrina's fury charts a clear deterioration in political consensus in the United States and a growing willingness to interpret events through a partisan prism. It is a problem that now appears destined to follow Bush through the final years of his presidency -- a clear failure of his 2000 campaign promise to be a "uniter, not a divider."
A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken last Friday illustrates the point vividly. Just 17 percent of Democrats said they approved of the way Bush was handling the Katrina crisis while 74 percent of Republicans said they approved. About two in three Republicans rated the federal government's response as good or excellent, while two in three Democrats rated it not so good or poor.
"Bush is the most partisan president in modern American history," said William Galston, a professor at the University of Maryland and previously a top domestic adviser to former President Bill Clinton. "As a result, voters in both parties are focusing on him, rather than on the specifics of the policies."
In Galston's view, Bush bears principal responsibility for that condition, saying that on three occasions he passed up opportunities to govern from the center and work more constructively with the Democrats and instead chose a path designed to mobilize conservatives. The first came after the disputed election of 2000, in the early days of Bush's new administration. The second came after the Sept. 11 attacks, when Bush's approval rating rose to 90 percent. The third came after the hard-fought and polarizing election last year.
"While White House aides can provide familiar talking points on gestures of cooperation across party lines, the fact of the matter is on all three occasions, the principal thrust of Bush's policies was toward polarization rather than conciliation," Galston said. "We are now living in the shadow of nearly five years in which that has been the dominant political message coming out of the White House."
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman offered a vigorous rebuttal to that criticism yesterday. "They've got a one-way street of unity," he said. "It's 'Do what we want, or you're not a unifier.' "
Mehlman said Bush has produced an unprecedented record of bipartisan accomplishment, citing the passage of the No Child Left Behind education act, prescription drug benefits for Medicare recipients, the USA Patriot Act and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which he said was advanced initially by Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) and eventually embraced by Bush. (Democrats say Bush embraced the department only when public opinion showed it to be extremely popular.) Mehlman also said Democrats are now attempting to take advantage of the politics of Katrina and pointed specifically at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who yesterday introduced legislation calling for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to be reconstituted as an independent, Cabinet-level agency, rather than a unit in the new Homeland Security Department. "You tell me who's taking what should be a moment of national unity and trying to score politically," he said. William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University, said the public divide over Bush's handling of the natural disaster bears considerable resemblance to divisions over Clinton's handling of the standoff with the Branch Davidian followers of David Koresh in Waco early in his presidency, which ended in a fire that killed more than 80 people. Democrats supported Clinton did the best he could "dealing with a crazy man," Mayer said, while Republicans "said this was a massively bungled affair."
Mayer and Nolan McCarty, a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton said that while polarization has worsened under Bush, the president bears only some of the responsibility. McCarty said Bush could try to rise above the current criticism but noted that partisans now have jumped in. "It will polarize things worse," he said.
Mark McKinnon, Bush's campaign media adviser, said Bush is still dealing with divisions that came out of the election 2000 but said the current crisis presents an opportunity for the administration "to show leadership and coordination and response and compassion of a nature that could affect the political dynamics of the country."
Galston agreed that is possible, but he said he doubted even a well-judged performance will fundamentally change Bush's ability to work across party lines on controversial issues. The hurricane may have washed away much of the Gulf Coast, but political polarization has proved resistant to its forces.