How the GOP Is Counting on Hurricane Gustav for an Image Makeover

With another enormous hurricane bearing down upon the Gulf Coast, John McCain and prominent Republican leaders have decided that this could be the perfect time to rebuild their image.

Think I'm being too cynical? Consider that McCain decided yesterday to gin up publicity for his campaign by touring the Gulf region with newly-minted vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. While down in Mississippi, McCain announced that the Republican National Convention this week would be transformed from "a party event to the call to the nation for action, action to help our fellow citizens in this time of tragedy and disaster, action in the form of volunteering, donations, reaching out our hands and our hearts and our wallets to the people who are under such great threat." What this means is anybody's guess, although GOP officials have been floating trial balloons about the idea of transforming the entire RNC into a giant telethon to help the hurricane victims. Not to be outdone, Senator Norm Coleman blatantly made the case that McCain would be the best president to defend the country from both terrorism and natural disasters. The hurricane also gave Bush a convenient opportunity to skip out of town and without weighing down the party with his sub-zero approval ratings.  As one anonymous Republican strategist told the Washington Post, "Now the Republican brand out there is not so bad... the does-Bush-help-or-hurt question doesn't need to be asked or answered."

To understand why the GOP has been so quick to cover all its bases on the current hurricane, we should consider the tremendous fallout that Hurricane Katrina had on the Bush presidency. The 2005 storm had a devastating political impact on George W. Bush and the Republican brand because it showed the American public what happens when a political party believes at its core that government should not be taken seriously.

Sound extreme? Consider Michael Brown, the woefully unqualified former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who became the public face of the disaster when Bush praised him against all evidence for doing a "heck of a job." Prior to becoming head of the nation's largest disaster relief agency, Brown worked for 11 years as "the chief rules enforcer of the Arabian Horse Association." His only supposed experience in emergency management had been working for the emergency services division in the city of Edmond, Oklahoma for three years in the 1970s.

You would think that with such a thin résumé, Brown would have been laughed out of the FEMA offices. But under the rules of Bush governance, partisan loyalties and ideological zeal always trump talent, intelligence and experience. Consider some other classic Bush appointees who were not merely unqualified, but who were in some cases actively hostile toward the institutions they were chosen to lead. There's George C. Deutsch, the former NASA press officer and college dropout who threatened NASA scientists with "dire consequences" for undermining the administration's position on global warming and who harped upon agency web designers to not dismiss intelligent design creationism on the agency's website. Or how about Monica Goodling, a religious zealot and former Justice Department political appointee who would screen candidates for career positions at the DOJ by asking them questions such as "What is it about President Bush that makes you want to serve him?" And who could forget notoriously unqualified Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers? Or John Bolton, the former United Nations ambassador who hates the United Nations? Or all the Heritage Foundation staffers who were sent over to rebuild Iraq?

The point is that for the past eight years, the administration has routinely appointed people to key government positions who are insane, incompetent, evil or some unholy combination of the three. This cavalier attitude toward hiring unqualified people for important positions resulted in the humanitarian disasters in both Iraq and the Gulf Coast, in government agencies where scientists feel threatened for not towing the administration line and in a Justice Department that has been plagued by shame and scandal. While one or two of these blunders would be bad enough on their own, collectively they have destroyed the GOP's image as the "daddy" party that believes in limited but effective governance.

Which brings us back to Hurricane Gustav. While it's unlikely that the GOP will totally undo the damage that the Bush years have wrought to its brand, the Republicans will likely attempt to show the public that during an election year they can at least try to govern in a manner that isn't wholly reminiscent of the Keystone Cops. Expect to see Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal giving us regular updates via satellite feed proclaiming that unlike in years past, federal relief workers are doing a heck of a job. Texas Governor Rick Perry will offer us heartfelt testimony from hurricane refugees grateful for the help they've been receiving. And finally, we'll probably watch Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour tell us that the government's excellent response to the hurricane shows that Barack Obama is dangerously unqualified to be president.

While you'd be right to call this cynical pandering, there are a couple of upsides to it. After all, assuming that the Republicans don't simply funnel all the money to Blackwater, it will be good to mobilize people to give money for hurricane relief. And let's face it, it is nice to now have two major political parties at least paying lip service to the radical idea that the government shouldn't simply sit by while its citizens drown.

AlterNet is a non profit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by our writers are their own.


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