Nine months before the November midterm elections, the Republican campaign theme is already clear: It's the terrorism, stupid.
The Bush White House has not been shy about its political use of an event, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which for a time lifted Americans above their sharp partisan divide. Now, President Bush faces increasing pressure to prove that he is on top of his game as the nation's protector in chief, against both terrorists and natural disasters, and that his party can continue to outshine the Democrats on the central issue of homeland security.
On Wednesday, a House committee of Republicans will release a 600-page report on the failures of government at all levels before and after hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. According to The Washington Post, which obtained a summary of the report, the document will lay primary blame on top administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security Operations Center, and the White House Homeland Security Council.
Bush himself faces criticism: "Earlier presidential involvement could have speeded the response" to Katrina, because Bush could have cut through the bureaucratic resistance that slowed the federal response, the summary reportedly says.
The report by the House committee, headed by Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia, represents unusual criticism of the president from members of his own party, who have usually rallied behind the administration on homeland security matters. The administration also faces questions from a small but growing cadre of Republican members on the legality of its warrantless wiretapping program.
Still, political analysts say, homeland security remains Bush's strongest issue and it will be hard to knock him off that perch. The bottom line, they say, is that the US has not faced another terrorist attack on its soil since Sept. 11, 2001; and Democrats have struggled to present an alternate vision on domestic security beyond "we care, too."
"[Bush] has got a little political capital on this issue, and the Democrats don't," says independent pollster John Zogby.
"The president can be hurt among traditional conservatives, first on the budget deficit and second on wiretapping. But ... if wiretapping is associated with the quote successful battle against terror, it kind of neutralizes disaffected conservatives. Where else are they going to go?"
Bush adviser Karl Rove has already laid out the central political message of the 2006 midterms: that the Republicans have a "post-9/11 world view and many Demo- crats have a pre-9/11 world view," as he said last month at the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee.
Last Thursday, in a speech to the annual Conservative Political Action Committee convention, Vice President Cheney drew a direct political link to the controversy over the National Security Agency's (NSA) domestic surveillance program.
"With an important election coming up, people need to know just how we view the most critical questions of national security, and how we propose to defend the nation that all of us, Republicans and Democrats, love and are privileged to serve," Mr. Cheney said.
Earlier that day, Bush had given a speech revealing information about a foiled terror attack on Los Angeles in 2002. The plot had been mentioned publicly before, though briefly, raising suspicions that the administration chose to put out more information just as Bush was facing heat over the NSA wiretapping program.
This week, though, the White House will be on shakier territory when it defends itself against the expected blast on how it handled Katrina, an episode that raised questions about the Bush administration's ability to handle another terror attack.
"If 9/11 was a failure of imagination then Katrina was a failure of initiative. It was a failure of leadership," the House report's preface will state, according to The Washington Post. "In this instance, blinding lack of situational awareness and disjointed decision making needlessly compounded and prolonged Katrina's horror."
The report comes on the heels of Senate testimony last Friday by Michael Brown, who headed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during Katrina and who became the lightning rod for charges of an inadequate federal response. In earlier testimony, Mr. Brown mainly criticized the governor of Louisiana and mayor of New Orleans. But last week, he focused blame on his superiors and on the bureaucratic structure in place after FEMA was incorporated into the new Department of Homeland Security.
Brown says that on the day Katrina hit, he informed either White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin or Chief of Staff Andy Card that "the worst-case scenario" was taking place - New Orleans was flooding - but it appears the message did not get through to Homeland Security officials.
The White House is also fighting for its image on Katrina. Last Friday, The New York Times reported that Bush believed that New Orleans had "dodged a bullet" after the storm - a characterization the White House disputes. With White House and Senate reports on Katrina due in weeks, the untangling of what went wrong during the disaster has only just begun.