Will Katrina Dampen Bush's Black Voter Court?

Could Mother Nature do what the Democrats couldn't? And that's put a damper on President Bush and Republican strategist Karl Rove's relentless drive to break the Democrat's stranglehold on the black vote. Before Katrina hit, there was a strong sign that Bush and Rove had some success. Their pro-business, and homeownership, Social Security privatization, and traditional family values pitch touched a faint nerve with some black evangelicals, independents, and younger, upwardly mobile blacks. The pitch worked so well that Bush bagged double-digit support from blacks in the presidential race in the crucial battleground states of Florida and Ohio. That helped tip the White House to him.

If the presidential election were held today, it would be a far different story. Project 21, the ultra conservative black political action group, that's been Bush's most fervent cheerleader, issued one skimpy press release mostly attacking the Congressional Black Caucus for racially politicizing the disaster. It made perfunctory mention of the federal response. Bush was not mentioned at all. Bush's top black evangelical backers are either mute, or have made wary utterances that they'll wait and see how much of a fight Bush puts up to get Congress to pony up the billions for Katrina reconstruction and to combat poverty that he promised in his national televised speech in New Orleans.

Even if he keeps his reconstruction promise, it won't totally rinse away the bitter taste his initial catatonic response to Katrina left in the mouths of most blacks. In polls, the majority of them blame Bush's bungled response not on incompetence but racism. Even more ominous for the GOP, the polls show that they also blame Republicans for the suffering. That's more worrisome than condemning an incompetent president. The GOP banked heavily on boosting black support in key races in 2006. The months before Katrina they worked hard to put the pieces in place.

In 2006, a bevy of high profile blacks will bid for Senate and governor seats in Pennsylvania and Ohio. These are two perennial crucial battleground states. Republicans would tout a win, or even a credible showing in the races, by their black candidates, to prove that the GOP is a cozy place for blacks.

The black evangelicals are also a vital key to their plan. By playing hard on the wedge issues of gay marriage, and abortion, the GOP counts on them to mobilize thousands of their church going flock to rally behind the GOP banner. But in the days after Katrina, the few black ministers that ventured any opinion about Bush spoke only of their concern about Bush's mishandling of the disaster, and what he'd have do to make amends for it.

The Katrina bungle doesn't mean that Bush, or the GOP, are politically spent with blacks. Much can and will happen between now and Election Day in 2006, and Republicans have gone into maximum damage control spin to make sure that good things happen right away. Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum kicked off the GOP counter-offensive when he unveiled a GOP poverty reduction program. Bush quickly took the cue. In his New Orleans speech he solemnly pledged to make tackling poverty a priority. He even squeezed in a big plug for school vouchers, enterprise zones, and greater reliance on faith based initiative.

These are all standard Republican pet programs that have gotten at best light traction. Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman stood Bush's bumble on its head and assured anxious Republicans that Katrina was not a setback but a golden opportunity to show that Republicans can wage an effective war against poverty. In a rare interview, Laura Bush got in her licks and publicly demanded that the nation look at poverty a different way. The GOP thrust was brazen, opportunistic, and a much belated effort to seize the political high ground.

But it was far better than anything the Democrats said or did post Katrina. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, and John Edwards flailed away at Bush for his Katrina ineptitude, spoke in vague terms about Two Americas, or made a plea for a Marshall type plan to fight poverty, a plan doomed from the moment the call was made.

By not putting forth a big, bold anti-poverty plan, and showing a willingness to raise their voices loudly and persistently for it, in other words to be active lobbyists for the poor, the Democrats again let the Republicans off the hook for their bumbles. That's been the sorry pattern with them through two failed presidential elections. They've allowed the Republicans to snatch victory from defeat every time.

Bush will have to do much more than toss out big dollar figures for Katrina reconstruction, and talk about fighting a truncated war on poverty. He'll have to deliver the goods. That will determine whether the GOP can bob above the Katrina tide with black voters, or not.


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