The GOP Has More to Rebuild Than New Orleans
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A year ago, the floodlights cast a pale, almost eerie light on famed Jackson Square in New Orleans's French Quarter as President Bush prepared to address a national television audience on Katrina.
In the days after Katrina struck, then-FEMA director Michael Brown and his boss, Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff, were savagely denounced by civil rights leaders, much of the media, state and local officials in Louisiana, and many in Congress for their foot-dragging response to the disaster.
Some Republicans joined in and demanded to know why the government did so little and took so long to aid the disaster stricken poor in the Gulf.
Ultimately, the finger pointed directly at Bush. A Congressional report in February 2006, and a video released by AP news in March, reconfirmed that the administration screwed up mightily. On the eve of Katrina's first anniversary, Bush obliquely acknowledged that the screw-ups haven't ended. In a White House photo-op session with a GOP-leaning Katrina survivor, Bush warned that the rebuilding is still going slowly.
Every one of the more than half dozen reports that have been issued in the days leading up to Katrina's first anniversary tell the same grim story. Not one new house has been built from the billions that Congress allocated for construction. Thousands of small businesses have still not received loans, most schools and hospitals are still shuttered, and most buses aren't running in New Orleans. The debris and wrecked homes are still piled up high in the blackest and poorest neighborhoods.
A crushing majority of blacks still blame Bush's bungled response to the destruction not on incompetence, but on racism. But many continue to blame Republicans for the suffering. That is more worrisome to GOP strategists than condemnation of a president for incompetence in the face of disaster. The GOP counted heavily on boosting black support in key races in the 2006 fall national elections, and hopefully using that success as a springboard to gain even greater black support in the 2008 presidential election. Katrina didn't change that.
Despite Bush's still-dismal poll ratings and his Katrina bungle, it doesn't mean that the GOP is politically spent. Much could happen between Katrina and Election Day in November and Republicans have gone into maximum damage control spin to make sure that good things happen. In January, Bush did a bit of self-flagellation on the occasion of the King holiday celebration and promised to do a better job of communicating with blacks.
With much public fanfare HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson has ladled out millions in grants and loans for low income housing redevelopment projects around the country. Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman continues to barnstorm the country speaking to any black group he can touting Bush's accomplishments, appointments, and offering more mea culpa's for the GOP's past naked pander past to unreconstructed bigots and segregationists.
In July Bush broke his one-man boycott of the NAACP and slammed racism. Bush and Mehlman are banking heavily on the new wave of high profile GOP candidates Lynn Swann, Ken Blackwell, and Michael Steele for Senate and gubernatorial spots in the key battleground states to burnish the party's diversity image, bump up the party's black vote total, and if a political miracle happens and one or more win, help massage a GOP win in those states in the 2008 presidential election.
The GOP's fond hope of political recovery with some blacks still crashes hard against its dependence on the white South to win national elections. This has become an idea fixee in American political life. President Bush more than the other Republican presidents has benefited the most from the Southern Strategy. In the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, Bush bagged the electoral votes of nearly all the states of the Old Confederacy and the Border states. Without the granite like backing of these states, Democratic Presidential contender Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 would have won the White House.
That, combined with the depth of frozen anti-black attitudes among far too many white voters, the endless legion of black Democrats in state and national offices, and the relentless war that civil rights leaders wage against the Republicans and their implore of black voters to do the same, make it a tall, if not impossible, order for the GOP to do a total volte face and abandon its core conservative principles.
Still, rarely in history do political events turn decisively on weather catastrophes. With the passage of time, Katrina may prove to be no exception to that rule. But a year later, the harsh recriminations about Bush's Katrina performance, and by extension the GOP's ability and willingness to meet the needs of the disaster stricken poor, the majority of whom were black, has not abated. The Katrina displaced still feel bitter and betrayed that the Bush and the GOP abandoned them in their hour of greatest need and desperation, and that betrayal hasn't ended. Bush and the GOP have more to rebuild than just New Orleans and the Gulf.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of the forthcoming book The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting look at Bush and The GOP's court of black voters.