Partisan bickering over Katrina escalates - to peril of both sides

Unlike 9/11, when Americans came together, the hurricane's aftermath has intensified the polarization of the Bush years.

As distasteful as it is to many Americans, the politics of hurricane Katrina have rushed in to fill the agendas of elected officials nearly as quickly as the floodwaters inundated New Orleans.

For the Bush administration, the mantra this week became "no blame-gaming, no finger-pointing" as it sought to recover from the early perception of a slow response to the disaster. The message has been that this is an administration of action, not partisan bickering, and that the task at hand is to address the situation on the ground. President Bush sent Congress a request for $51.8 billion in additional hurricane aid. Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, toured New Orleans and the Gulf region Thursday, talking to local officials and first-responders.

In reality, hurricane Katrina has become an anti-9/11 of sorts. Whereas four years ago people dropped their red and blue identities to rally around their leaders, Katrina seems to have exacerbated the extreme polarization of the Bush years. At his first Cabinet meeting since returning from vacation, Mr. Bush declared he would oversee an inquiry into the government response to Katrina, prompting an immediate outcry from Democrats that the government cannot investigate itself.

Republicans in Congress quickly followed by announcing an investigative commission on Katrina, with GOP members to form a majority. Democrats cried foul, arguing that the model of the 9/11 commission - made up of nonlawmakers in a balance of Republicans and Democrats, operating with a goal of consensus - would be preferable. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, widely seen as a leading Democratic hopeful for president in 2008, emerged as a chief critic of the Republicans' inquiry plan and of the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Before Katrina, Senator Clinton had lain low on national issues, focusing instead on reelection to the Senate.

Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, also came out with guns blazing this week. "We must ... come to terms with the ugly truth that skin color, age, and economics played a deadly role in who survived and who did not," he told the National Baptist Convention of America on Wednesday.

"Politicization is very dangerous for both sides," says Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council. "If either party is seen as obstructing results, people will blame them. Americans are pragmatic, not ideological or partisan. Clearly, the administration has bungled this, but ultimately the American people want to see a restored New Orleans and these people's lives put back together."

On Thursday, the liberal group Moveon.org organized a protest of hurricane evacuees at the White House to decry the federal response and to demand a meeting with Bush - suggesting almost a Cindy Sheehan-ization of Katrina victims. The Republican National Committee fired back in a press release, saying "Moveon.org Democrats play the blame game and politicize Katrina relief."

For Republicans, a political danger lies in the fact that they control the White House and both houses of Congress - and the public will look to them for results. "The real danger comes on the administration's side, where if New Orleans becomes a metaphor for Bush policy in general, they're in real trouble," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "If it reinforces that the comfortable are safe and do well, while the vulnerable are on their own, it could be a burden for Bush for the rest of his term."

A Texas Poll released Thursday shows Bush's approval ratings in Texas, his home state, are 9 points below where they usually are, with 52 percent approving of his performance and 43 percent disapproving. Bush's job approval in Texas is typically10 points above his national average.

Generally, the partisan polarization registered by pollsters during much of Bush's presidency - abating only in the aftermath of 9/11 - continues. The latest US polls show Bush's job approval among Republicans in the mid-80s and in the low teens among Democrats - a gap of about 70 percentage points. "He's the most polarizing president we've had in the 50-odd years we've been polling the question," says Gary Jacobson, an expert on this issue at the University of California, San Diego.

This phenomenon reflects Bush's tendency to play to his base supporters, and bring over a few Democrats to his side as needed. During a major challenge, Bush's strategy of keeping his core of support on his side serves as a political protection, Professor Jacobson says.

"He's lost the Democrats, period, and the independents are now closer to the Democrats than [to] the Republicans," Jacobson says. "What's saved Bush is that his base has stayed with him."

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