'Change' politics in a hurricane

Voters expect 'change' and in the run-up to Gustav, they saw some change in their leaders.

America's mood this election year is for "change." But from what? The Bush years? The once near-certainty of another Clinton in the White House? A "safe" choice for GOP vice president? Perhaps from a Congress whose popularity is so low that it could crawl under a snake with a top hat on?

The days before hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast have provided one answer. The storm gave an example of the kind of change that Americans might expect – seen in the better preparations for this storm compared to the pre-Katrina debacle of 2005.

Before Gustav, President Bush was a commander in chief in directing preparations rather than politicking at the much-muted GOP convention or sitting in the White House. The New Orleans mayor stepped up to the task this time and ordered an early evacuation of his city. Before the storm, the city's levees were at least better shored up and repaired than before Katrina.

The Red Cross put 3,000 volunteers in place beforehand. Churches nationwide prepared their charity and gave their prayers before the storm. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government bodies tried to better coordinate rescue efforts.

Amazingly, Gustav forced both Democratic and GOP leaders to put aside partisanship for the sake of the nation – for a few days. John McCain and Barack Obama displayed a measure of presidential-style leadership. Now that may be a change worth voting for – if only it lasted and it was for real.

These pre-Gustav actions help force the question of how much each presidential ticket reflects the popular mood to have each party seek common ground rather than a take-no-prisoners political high ground.

Mr. Obama promises a campaign and a presidency whose style will not be like "the old politics." He seeks national unity around the slogan "middle class first." Mr. McCain, with a record of bucking his party and reaching across the aisle, promises national unity around the slogan "country first."

For his vice president, Obama tapped a Washington insider, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, who's been in office 36 years.

McCain reached to the outer reaches of the country, Alaska, and to a governor, Sarah Palin, who's been in office less than two years and who challenges her party's establishment.

Obama's choice for VP helps shore up his weakness in national security and with blue-collar voters. McCain's choice polishes his weak social-conservative credentials and his reputation as a maverick.

But is Ms. Palin too much "change" and too risky? In Alaska, she is popular for her judgment and leadership – not to mention her personal story – and for forcing change on state politics. But the rest of the nation may ask if those qualities outweigh her level of inexperience in foreign affairs that is less than Obama's and many governors who previously ran on national tickets. During the primaries, Hillary Clinton's charge of inexperience thrown at Obama didn't stick. His offer of "change" won him the ticket.

Now, during the Gustav crisis, voters caught a glimpse of the kind of change the candidates can offer when politics are set aside and Americans act as one.

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