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For Democrats, A Balancing Act On Katrina

By Reid Wilson

When the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina rolls around a year from now, two nominees will be engaged in the pitched final sprint of a long campaign. The Democratic National Convention will have ended the day before the August 29th anniversary, while the Republican's gathering begins just three days later. Both campaigns will likely hold events to mark the solemn occasion, and once again New Orleans will be thrust into the national spotlight. For both parties, the anniversary will pose opportunities and challenges.

Democrats are better poised to turn the federal response to the hurricane into an argument for their election. But some say both parties should focus not on who's to blame, but on what an appropriate federal rebuilding plan should include.

Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000, grew up in New Orleans, and she feels the city's pain intensely. Visiting in late May, Brazile said the city "still looked like a battered war zone." Of her eight siblings, just one had returned home. Her father, she says, now lives in Baton Rouge and swears he won't return.

"Some people believe this is a partisan issue," said Brazile. As a member of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, Brazile disagrees, and sees the ongoing effort as an opportunity for both parties to take up an important issue. "Katrina is an opportunity for the candidate to talk about emergency preparedness," she said. "It's an opportunity to talk about how they would improve some of the government services [in the city] in the wake of a storm."

Louisiana political analyst Elliott Stonecipher also sees the issue as non-partisan. "If there was no scapegoat, if there was no fingerpointing," he asked, "how much better would that be for Louisiana?"

Democrats used the second anniversary this week to roll out comprehensive plans for Gulf Coast rebuilding while continuing to lambaste the Bush Administration's handling of the aftermath. "We don't need more of the Bush administration incompetence," Senator Hillary Clinton said in a statement. Senator Barack Obama said Bush and FEMA "responded incompetently," while former Senator John Edwards called the response "a national shame."

Next year, the party's nominee, according to strategists and observers, will be able to use Hurricane Katrina as an issue of competence. "You bring up Katrina and you raise questions of competence," said Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report and a Louisiana native. "It feeds questions of 'time for a change.'"

That message "usually is the dynamic at work after eight years of one party in power," Cook said, pointing to elections in 1960, 1968 and 2000, in which the party in power lost the White House after one incumbent's two terms in office.

Now, Katrina is becoming the tipping point that convinces voters Democrats are better equipped to manage government, typically a position the GOP stakes out. Between Katrina, the war in Iraq and recent Republican scandals, Cook said, GOP advantages are slipping. "Some of the historic strengths of the Republican Party have been undermined in the last few years," he said.

Republicans recognize the trouble they face as well. "Memories of it are dogging our party as part of that whole competence problem we face," Republican pollster Glen Bolger said. "It's part of the subtext of, 'Jeez, are these guys even ready for primetime anymore?'"

Independent pollster John Zogby, though, sees Katrina as a much more significant historic event. "Katrina will turn out to be more of a defining moment in American history than 9/11," he said. Republicans still hold something of an edge with voters when the topic is the war on terror. Now, says Zogby, "Democrats can turn Katrina into the moral equivalent of the war on terrorism."

The government failed as badly with Katrina, Zogby said, as it did during the Great Depression or the economic slump of the late 1970s. Democrats can use the argument, as Franklin Roosevelt did in 1932 and as Ronald Reagan did in 1980, to argue that "what we need is an entirely new definition of federalism," Zogby said.

Most Republican candidates will face the albatross of the Bush Administration virtually no matter whether Katrina is an issue or not. They could lessen the damage, though, by boasting of executive experience. "All that an individual candidate can do is point to their own record" of good response to a disaster, said Bolger. The nominee, though, may also need to distance themselves as much as possible from the president. "I don't think they need to be apologists for the Bush Administration," Bolger said.

Any attempt to use Katrina for political points brings with it inherent danger and the chance to incur the wrath of Louisianans. "To the extent that the Democratic Party believes that scapegoating the administration works best for them, that is truly counterproductive to the state," Stonecipher said.

Democrats are taking note; the party's presidential candidates are offering recovery plans, while Senate Democrats rushed to take credit for some measures they have taken and gave credit to Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, who faces a difficult re-election battle next year.

But once 2008 rolls around, Zogby thinks the party has only once choice when it comes to discussing Katrina: "Hammer and hammer and hammer and hammer," he said. The party has not stopped hammering since the botched aftermath of Katrina. And they will continue to do so, says Cook. "They're doing what a competent, strategically-minded campaign would do."

It is unlikely that, a year from now, much more progress will be made, Brazile said. She rattled off issues the area still faces: Problems finding homeowner's insurance, crumbling infrastructure and few city services. "We're halfway there," she said, "but we're not all the way home."

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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