Partisan Bickering over Katrina Escalates - to Peril of Both Sides ; Unlike 9/11, When Americans Came Together, the Hurricane's Aftermath Has Intensified the Polarization of the Bush Years

Article excerpt

As distasteful as it is to many Americans, the politics of hurricane Katrina have rushed in to fill the agendas of elected officials nearly as quickly as the floodwaters inundated New Orleans.

For the Bush administration, the mantra this week became "no blame-gaming, no finger-pointing" as it sought to recover from the early perception of a slow response to the disaster. The message has been that this is an administration of action, not partisan bickering, and that the task at hand is to address the situation on the ground. President Bush sent Congress a request for $51.8 billion in additional hurricane aid. Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, toured New Orleans and the Gulf region Thursday, talking to local officials and first-responders.

In reality, hurricane Katrina has become an anti-9/11 of sorts. Whereas four years ago people dropped their red and blue identities to rally around their leaders, Katrina seems to have exacerbated the extreme polarization of the Bush years. At his first Cabinet meeting since returning from vacation, Mr. Bush declared he would oversee an inquiry into the government response to Katrina, prompting an immediate outcry from Democrats that the government cannot investigate itself.

Republicans in Congress quickly followed by announcing an investigative commission on Katrina, with GOP members to form a majority. Democrats cried foul, arguing that the model of the 9/11 commission - made up of nonlawmakers in a balance of Republicans and Democrats, operating with a goal of consensus - would be preferable. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, widely seen as a leading Democratic hopeful for president in 2008, emerged as a chief critic of the Republicans' inquiry plan and of the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Before Katrina, Senator Clinton had lain low on national issues, focusing instead on reelection to the Senate.

Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, also came out with guns blazing this week. "We must ... come to terms with the ugly truth that skin color, age, and economics played a deadly role in who survived and who did not," he told the National Baptist Convention of America on Wednesday.

"Politicization is very dangerous for both sides," says Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council. "If either party is seen as obstructing results, people will blame them. Americans are pragmatic, not ideological or partisan. …


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