Hurricane politics

Three years after the Republicans suffered a great blow to their reputation for managerial competence, the GOP reverts to election-year attention levels.

Published September 1, 2008 12:53PM (EDT)

Let me begin by stipulating that any natural disaster of the magnitude of Hurricane Gustav is a tragedy, as it will costs lives and displace people and entails billions in damages. But, from a partisan standpoint, what we are seeing here again is the difference between Republican reaction time when a natural disaster occurs during an electoral cycle and one that does not.

In the “political memo” feature for the New York Times, Peter Baker writes:

“On the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall three years ago, President Bush helped Senator John McCain celebrate his birthday with a cake that melted on a blazing hot airport tarmac, just as the president’s approval ratings would in the weeks to come.

This time around, the party’s off. Or at least it is for Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain, who on Sunday sought to focus attention on efforts to prepare for Hurricane Gustav at the expense of carefully laid plans for this week’s Republican National Convention.

Operative words? “This time around.” As Salon’s Eric Boehlert reminds us, on the eve of George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election bid the Bush Administration had bodies and supplies and other forms of support lined up in advance of the hurricane season in Florida, the state that put Bush over the top in 2000 and one expected to be close again that fall. A year later, once the votes were in, the nation witnessed the Administration’s lagged, pathetic Katrina-style response and the McCain-Bush cake-cutting revelry. Clearly, the Republicans can do a heckuva job when they want to.

Indeed, now that it is election season again, notice the response. First, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney conveniently use Gustav as a way to avoid St. Paul, and the GOP convention schedule is scaled back; second, John "Country First" McCain rushes to the Gulf Coast. These are the appropriate responses, sure. But more telling are the twin precedents of 2004 and 2005, for they reveal not that the GOP has learned its lesson, but rather that too many Americans have not learned theirs: Republicans respond differently when it is election season.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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2008 Elections George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.