Maybe in a month or two, after the pestilential floodwaters are pumped back into Lake Pontchartrain, all the corpses are carried away, and New Orleanians begin moving back home, the national sense of revulsion and anger and shame will have receded. Maybe by Columbus Day or Thanksgiving, something close to a majority of Americans will once again think that the Bush administration, all told, is doing a pretty darned good job.
But I don’t think so. As far as the public’s trust in George Bush goes, I think Katrina has changed everything.
The Republicans, after all, are supposed to be the competent ones, the coolly efficient daddies instead of the confused, softhearted mommies, the executives who get things done while the Democrats just fret and whine and coddle. Since 9/11 especially, the Republican reputation for no-nonsense, kick-ass reliability is what puts all national Democrats at a political disadvantage; it’s what got Bush reelected.
For the past two years, however, the war in Iraq—and the administration’s absolute unwillingness to admit error or change strategy or send more troops, like the dad who shouts at mom and refuses to stop the car to ask directions when he’s lost—has been gradually eroding that central premise of the Republican brand. But the value-neutral question of the administration’s competence concerning Iraq is muddied by and subordinated to the endlessly arguable geopolitical and moral debates. The people who supported the invasion are disinclined to admit just how disastrously the occupation has been executed, and the criticism of the bungling by people who opposed the war from the start seems like disingenuous I-told-you-so gloating. So the passionate, overriding argument has been about whether invading was right or wrong, not how effectively the war has been prosecuted.
But for practical-minded Americans, the federal government’s mishandling of the Katrina catastrophe is the converse. It’s a pure test of governmental competence. The associated ideological argument—whether or not the government’s response would have been quicker and surer if the victims had been whiter—is an ugly, unanswerable secondary issue whose plausibility makes the incompetence seem only more awful and embarrassing.
Unlike with Iraq, there’s no foreign evildoer or weak-kneed liberal political opponent onto whom the public’s rage can be off-loaded. (Perhaps an all-powerful God could be blamed for Katrina? Perhaps not.) In the past when it has been politically threatened, this administration has lucked or brilliantly spun its way out of trouble. But that magic was starting to fade even before Katrina: According to every major national opinion poll during August, an absolute majority of Americans disapproved of Bush. And since the hurricane, his PR performance has been virtually Kerry-esque—flat-footed, tone-deaf, defensive—as egregious and ineffective in its fashion as the civil-defense failures on the ground.
It took him two days after the hurricane hit to decide he’d better end his monthlong vacation early—and his first photo op was the flyby at 2,500 feet, staring down helplessly at New Orleans from Air Force One. The next day, his Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, on “All Things Considered,” said that he had “not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don’t have food and water,” and dismissed an NPR reporter’s firsthand account as “a rumor or . . . someone’s anecdotal version.” And the day after that, Bush flew back to the region to praise his FEMA director, Michael Brown (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”), and to use his speech in New Orleans as an opportunity to snigger about his own hard-partying younger days in the Big Easy.
Now, in the minds of the great middle third of the public, the bumbling, dissembling responses to Katrina and to the Iraq insurgency will start to seem all of a piece. The dots will be connected, fairly as well as unfairly, as a harsh new picture emerges.
When ordinary Americans hear their secretary of Homeland Security denying the very debacle they’re hearing and seeing reported in real time—our 2005 domestic version of the Iraqi minister of Information’s performance in 2003—more of them will be disinclined to believe what administration officials are telling them about Iraq. If the National Guard and Army were not stretched so thin overseas, people are saying, maybe the helicopters and troops and food and water could have gotten to New Orleans faster and in greater numbers. The price of gasoline had already doubled since we invaded Iraq, and now Katrina is pushing it past $3 a gallon. Patriotic citizens will find it harder to make their hopeful, fingers-crossed excuses for the difficulties in Iraq. A lot of people will have the half-conscious thought: This president is real quick to kill people, but slow to save them. And many more will say, If he can’t deal properly with the mess down on the Gulf Coast, no wonder he can’t deal with the mess in the Persian Gulf, and vice versa. Politically, the mismanagement of Katrina and the mismanagement of the war in Iraq have negative synergy.