Catastrophic Failure

The advantage could go to whichever party offers bold ideas for improving government responses to crisis.

The government safety net has failed—catastrophically. "Our government failed those people in the beginning; and, I take it, now there is no dispute about it," former President Clinton said a few days after Hurricane Katrina struck.

On 9/11, the United States was attacked by a foreign enemy. Much of the damage from Katrina was caused by a failure of American government. "The situation is so different," remarked former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., a member of the 9/11 commission. "It looks the same because you have loss of life and destruction. But with 9/11, you could focus on a clear and present enemy."

The country came together after 9/11. It was "us" against "them." The country came together after Katrina, too, with an outpouring of sympathy and generosity. Politically, however, the country is divided. It's "us" against "us." In a late-September 2001 Gallup Poll, President Bush's job-approval rating was 90 percent: 98 percent among Republicans, 84 percent among Democrats. Two weeks after the Katrina disaster began, Bush's approval ratings have hit record lows of around 40 percent. In a new CBS News poll, the president drew 81 percent approval from Republicans but just 14 percent from Democrats.

Katrina also opened up a dangerous racial divide. In a Newsweek poll, 65 percent of nonwhite respondents endorsed the view that race was a factor in the federal government's slow response to the storm. ("It did not have priority because the people affected are mostly African-Americans.") Among whites, 64 percent rejected that view. Most blacks see discrimination. Most whites see misfortune. Many whites probably fail to comprehend the reality of the situation for poor black people. How could they evacuate New Orleans if they did not have automobiles or money, and if they felt unwelcome in the surrounding suburbs and towns?

"On 9/11, we had an external threat," Kerrey said. "Here, it feels like an internal threat." Moreover, something happened between 9/11 and Katrina. "The intervening event was the Iraq war," Kerrey added. "A significant amount of distrust has resulted as a consequence," including "a credibility problem for the administration."

Katrina has worsened the credibility problem. In an August 29-31 CBS News poll, 72 percent of Americans said they had a "great deal" or a "fair amount" of confidence in the ability of the U.S. government to protect its citizens from future terrorist attacks. A week later, that number had dropped to 59 percent.

September 11 shifted the national agenda to national security. According to the Pew Research Center, for four years after 9/11, the war on terrorism outweighed domestic issues as a public concern. Katrina has shifted the agenda back to domestic problems. By more than 2-to-1 in the latest Pew survey (56 percent to 25 percent), Americans think it is more important for Bush to focus on domestic policy than on terrorism.

That sounds like good news for Democrats, who have been emboldened by the Katrina calamity. The safety net is their issue, after all. Many Democrats blame the Republican philosophy of limited government: Tax cuts that put a squeeze on government resources, spending cuts on infrastructure and flood control, and the diversion of resources to the war in Iraq.

"If we need more funds to meet the needs of these people who have been hurt by this tragedy, then we ought to stop the tax cuts for the very wealthy," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

Clearly thrown on the defensive, Senate Republican leaders postponed what was to have been their first order of business this fall, the permanent elimination of the estate tax.

Republicans have responded to Katrina by blaming bureaucratic incompetence: lack of planning for the evacuation, conflicting authority over flood control, and government bungling. "Bureaucracy's not going to stand in the way of getting the job done for the people," Bush said last week.

But Republicans have to make that argument carefully, because the person at the head of the federal bureaucracy is Bush. Louisiana voters may ultimately hold accountable their own public officials, including the Democratic governor and the Democratic mayor of New Orleans. But voters who are not in states hit by Katrina only have the power to hold federal officials accountable. And the federal government is controlled by the GOP. The Newsweek poll reports that Democrats now hold a 12-point lead over Republicans when voters nationwide are asked which party's candidate they would vote for if congressional elections were held now (50 percent said they'd support a Democrat, 38 percent said a Republican).

Results like that would produce a political earthquake at the voting booth, comparable to the one in 1994—if the elections were being held this fall. But the midterm elections are still 14 months away, an eternity in politics. Meanwhile, observers on both sides argue that the political advantage will go to whichever party offers bold ideas for improving the government's responses to crises.

"Both parties have a great opportunity, and a great risk," Newt Gingrich told The Washington Post. Katrina is "changing the playbook," the former GOP House speaker said. "We're not in a values fight right now, but [one] over whether the system is working. The issue is delivery." Democrat Kerrey agreed: "It takes unconventional thinking at a time when something unconventional is happening."