Sat, Sep 10, 2005 - Page 9 News List

The political fallout of Hurricane Katrina

By Jonathan Freedland  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

It's safe to say that if US President George W. Bush was in his first term, he would now be heading for defeat. Safe, because we will never know: He's in his second term and will never face the voters again.

That quirk in the US system, with its strict two-term rule, makes it hard to read the impact Hurricane Katrina will have on the Bush presidency. Nor is it much easier to tell how the disaster that drowned one of the US' best-loved cities will change the country itself. But both questions matter -- especially for a wider world that has come to learn that what happens in the US affects everyone.

Start with Bush himself. Weekend polls suggested 50-50 that the has once again split down the middle, with Bush opponents disapproving of his abysmal non-performance last week while Bush supporters stay loyal. That's heartened Republicans who were bracing themselves for much worse numbers.

They find further cheer in their belief that Bush bounces back in a crisis. Attacked for his immediate response to Sept. 11, he turned that calamity into the defining moment of his first term. Privately, conservatives also wonder how much sympathy white, suburban US -- the crucial middle ground all politicians covet -- will feel for Katrina's victims.

One close-up observer describes what he suspects is a widely-held -- if rarely articulated -- view of those left behind in New Orleans: "They lived in a silly place, they didn't get out when they should, they stole, they shot at each other and they shot at rescue workers."

If that's the view, then Bush won't suffer too badly.

Pessimistic Bushites see things differently. They reckon the sight of so many black Americans left destitute or dying while Washington idled will embarrass those same white suburban voters who, they say, feel uncomfortable at even a hint of racism. They also believe Bush and chief strategist Karl Rove can consign to the trash-can their long-term dream of peeling at least some African-American voters away from the Democrats.

Bush had scored some small successes in that direction: Now he can forget it. More directly, the charge of incompetence is deadly when applied to the White House: It could instantly diminish Bush, reducing him to a lame duck nearly two years ahead of schedule.

The most immediate test will be in his nominations for what are now two vacancies on the Supreme Court. He has made one choice already; if he feels obliged to nominate a liberal or centrist as his second, rather than the red-meat conservative he would have preferred, that will be proof that Katrina has hobbled him.

What of America itself? Since the country's founding, the US has oscillated between international engagement and isolationism.

Sometimes it wants to look outward, sometimes in. The hurricane may well put Americans in the latter mood. As they look at pictures of US troops toiling away in Iraq, many will surely think: What the hell are we doing there, when we have so much work to do right here at home?

Adrian Wooldridge, co-author with John Micklethwait of an excellent study of conservative America, The Right Nation, anticipates just such a sentiment.

"The big losers among Republicans will be the neocons," he says. "The hubris of thinking America could reshape the world, creating a democracy in hostile territory, when it can't even keep order in an American city -- that hubris has just been punctured in a big way."

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