Katrina and The Clintons

Bill and Hillary Clinton have never been modest in the scope of their ambitions, nor shy in pursuing them. And so it comes as no surprise to find the once and (aspiring) future presidents fast emerging as two of the dominant figures in the aftermath of Katrina. Here you have an event of possibly epic political consequences, a mirror-image 9/11. And here you have the preeminent power couple in the past two decades of American political life, a pair whose hunger to shape the course of human events is as ravenous as ever.

The Clinton-Katrina nexus will be on vivid display toward the end of this week in New York, when the Clinton Global Initiative gets under way at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers. Extravagantly ambitious, confusingly named (in case you haven’t heard, it’s a conference), and staggeringly expensive ($15,000 a head), the CGI is Clinton’s attempt to reanimate the internationalist vision of his presidency from a postpresidential platform—three days of panels and plenary sessions designed to spur government–private-sector cooperation to tackle the world’s ills.

Until two weeks ago, there was every chance that the CGI would be dismissed as just another logorrhea—but then the levees broke in New Orleans and the world shifted on its axis. Suddenly, America itself had provided a vivid First World object lesson in total system failure that’s as shocking and as calamitous as any in the Third. Suddenly, Clinton had on his hands an event that promises to be charged with relevance and grounded in local urgency. And suddenly, Hillary had a gnarly stick with which to beat the White House—no small thing for a putative presidential candidate whose vote authorizing Bush to wage war in Iraq is emerging as potentially problematic to her prospects.

Only the most cynical and rabid Clinton-haters would suggest that either of them takes pleasure in the still-unfolding nightmare on the Gulf Coast. Yet for politicians, as the Clintons well know, tragedy, though never to be wished for, breeds political opportunity—the opportunity, in this case, to reshape the partisan battlefield. And, perhaps, in the process, to bring about a Clinton restoration.

Clinton’s people—who, being Clinton’s people, are harried and sleepless most of the time, but especially right now—insist that the CGI isn’t going to be all Katrina, all the time. According to Clinton spokesman Jay Carson, the only New Orleans–related adjustment to the agenda is the addition of a single session on climate change and natural disasters. “We made a decision not to make this the Katrina Global Initiative,” he told me. But Carson acknowledges that the topic will nevertheless be pervasive. Of the four primary subjects being addressed at the event—Poverty; Enhancing Governance; Climate Change; and Religion, Conflict, and Reconciliation—only the last seems likely to be an entirely Katrina-free zone.

Even so, there probably won’t be much explicit Bush-bashing onstage at the CGI. For one thing, Clinton is involved in an intricate dance with the Bushes—providing political cover for the son by signing on to a Katrina relief effort with the father, whom he genuinely likes, apparently on the theory that it will shield Hillary from a degree of administration criticism. (Fat chance.) For another, Clinton believes that for the CGI to grow into a lasting institution, it must be, as Carson put it, “scrupulously nonpartisan.”

Certainly the attendee list—750 entries long and full of geopolitical boldface names—appears to reflect that dictate. Blair, Chirac, and Peres will all be in the house. So will Murdoch, Soros, Rubin, Parsons, Condi, Gore, and Kofi. It’s the World Economic Forum meets Renaissance Weekend with a dash of Bohemian Grove.

Yet whatever their partisan affiliations, the Clinton conferees actually share myriad traits in common. They are, almost to a man, hard-core internationalists, cosmopolitans, sophisticates. They believe that global economic integration is, by and large, a force for good. They believe that such integration has, like it or not, fostered a stout and growing degree of global interdependence—that problems, like capital, spill freely across borders. Most, if not all, are multilateralists to one degree or another, who believe in collective action. (This, indeed, is the very raison d’être of the CGI.) They are, in short, all incarnations of what the Harvard professor Samuel Huntington once described as Davos Man.

George W. Bush, of course, is not now and has never been a Davos Man (though, arguably, his father is). Nor is Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, or almost anyone else of significance in the Bush inner circle. (Which isn’t the same as saying that they’ve never been to Davos; even the hardest-hearted men of the right have been known to enjoy the occasional skiing junket.) It’s apt, in fact, to label the Bush high command as anti–Davos Men, wedded to their now-familiar brand of go-it-alone, you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us brand of unilateralism abroad and reflexive anti-governmentalism at home.

Say what you will about these stances as matters of ideology or principle, in practice they’ve produced a litany of nightmares—with Iraq and now New Orleans right atop the list. In the international arena, the two disasters are widely seen as being of a piece. “People don’t fully understand yet that New Orleans is a global event, not a national one,” says David Dreyer, a former aide to Clinton and Robert Rubin who now spends a considerable amount of his time consulting abroad. “The reason that Hugo Chávez can organize across Latin America in ways contrary to U.S. interests is that the sheen has come off American exceptionalism. We are no longer seen as being able to order our own universe.”

“People don’t fully understand yet that New Orleans is a global event, not a national one,” says a former Clinton aide.

For Clinton, a Davos Man to the depths of his southern-fried soul, and one for whom disaster relief was always a point of pride, the humiliation of America in the eyes of the world over New Orleans must be acutely painful. Straining hard against his desire to remain above the fray, he said last week, “Our government failed those people in the beginning, and I take it now that there is no dispute about it … I have my own ideas about what caused it.” And that was as far as he went.

Yet Clinton knows that the looming battle over who lost New Orleans may prove to be a pivot point in the larger contest between Democrats and Republicans, providing his party a chance to make a set of arguments not only about sheer competence but about the role of government. We know he knows because he did that very thing himself in 1995, in the aftermath of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. With breathtaking subtlety and nimbleness, Clinton used that act of terrorism to illustrate the dangers of the wild-eyed anti-government rhetoric then in vogue among the Gingrichian GOP—a move that set him on the road to political redemption.

Which brings us to Hillary. For all her husband’s apparently sincere desire to erect a depoliticized aura around the CGI, it’s worth noting that he felt not the slightest hesitation to bequeath her a speaking slot at the conference. (She is slated to appear on a panel titled “Promoting Prosperity With Climate Change Policy.”) When I asked Jay Carson about this, he seemed startled by the query. “It would almost be crazy for her not to be there,” he said. “She’s a senator from New York State, she’s incredibly smart, and she’s his wife.”

The interesting question, however, is whether her posture on Katrina during the conference will be as restrained as her husband’s. And judging from the past few days, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Indeed, even by the rapidly escalating standards of her fellow Democrats, Mrs. Clinton’s criticisms of the administration have been especially adamant. She has called for FEMA to be separated from the Department of Homeland Security. She has demanded an independent investigation on the model of the 9/11 Commission. Hammering the Bush approach to state and local governments as a “recipe for disaster,” she has said, “There was nobody in charge in the federal-government level, and there was nobody willing to take responsibility to work with state and local officials.”

That Hillary has jumped so lustily into the Katrina fray isn’t terribly surprising—even apart from what must be the counsel of her husband. With an eye toward 2008, she has spent much of the past few years staking out positions—on Iraq, on abortion—that would allow her to cast herself as a moderate. Against this backdrop, Katrina presents her with a nearly irresistible opportunity to full-throatedly champion an issue sure to resonate with the party’s true-believing left.

But Katrina affords the senator another, more intriguing opportunity: to make an unvarnished appeal to Clinton nostalgia. In “eight years of the Clinton administration,” she said last week, FEMA was run by “qualified” officials who knew what they were doing. “During the Clinton administration,” she went on, as if chanting a mantra, “the government took the lead in handling disasters of significance … and that is as it should be.”

If George W. Bush has figured out the advantages of having the ex-president on his team (however instrumental and temporary that alliance may be), you can bet that lesson isn’t lost for a minute on Hillary Clinton. Back in 1992, the buy-one-get-one-free concept was, if anything, a net loser for her husband. How ironic that in 2008, the very same bargain might prove to be Hillary’s best chance to wind up in the White House.

Katrina and The Clintons