When the wind blows

Who has shown leadership in the afermath of Katrina?

Dateline 09 September 2005

On September 10th 2001, Rudi Giuliani seemed to be approaching the end of his political career. He was a lame duck mayor, and had pulled out of the US Senate race on health grounds. It seemed unlikely that his handpicked successor would triumph in the mayor’s race. Four years later Giuliani remains the guy to beat in the 2008 Republican primaries.

Does anyone, even for a moment, imagine that Ray Nagin of New Orleans and Kathleen Blanco, governor of Louisiana, have similarly catapulted themselves to the forefront of national politics? Is either one of them likely to be Time’s person of the year?

This is not to say that the federal government has acquitted itself with any particular distinction. The President was slow to show the concern that the public and media expected. As in September 2001, he seemed to focus on management, not leadership. There is a case to be made for this. Perhaps he is able to achieve more from Washington, or even Crawford, than from the scene of the disaster. But public expectations matter. He should know from his time owning a baseball team that sports psychology matters more than all the coach’s planning.

Calls for the resignation of the head of FEMA have not been restricted to the angry left. But the ongoing political consequences for the federal administration will prove minimal. George W Bush has fought his last election. If Louisiana did swing towards the Democrats it would probably be in play in 2008. Bill Clinton won the state twice. But in Mississippi, the Republican lead is such that it could absorb a hefty knock. Just as John Kerry’s lead in New York and Connecticut was never seriously threatened by above average Republican gains in 2004. New Jersey, briefly, seemed to be in play, but in the end the Democrat lead was secure.

And for all the weakness of the federal response, it is by no means clear that most people blame the feds more than the local authorities. Early indications are the reverse. According to Survey USA’s poll the number of people who approve of the President’s response declined from 48% to 38% between 8/31 and 9/04. But in the same period, the numbers believing that local officials were prepared declined from 25% to 12%. A much bigger decline from a much lower base. When Nagin and Blanco hysterically blame the President they are fighting for their political survival.

The scale of the devastation may be unprecedented, but hurricanes are not. A year ago hurricane Ivan seemed to threaten New Orleans. The evacuation was botched. City and school buses sat idle while the poorest residents of the inner city – mostly African Americans – were left behind. Ivan changed course and the damage was minimal. But what exactly did Kathleen Blanco and Ray Nagin learn from this? They acknowledged the need for superior evacuation planning, but acknowledging the need seems to be as far as they got.

Will Hillary Clinton be inviting Blanco or Nagin to join her ticket in 2008? Not a chance. But several key observers – including Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal, Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia and The Jockey of Politicalderby.com have commented Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi has enhanced his credentials as a possible presidential candidate.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 09 September 2005

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