Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Stop! You're Both Right 

In which two of our most astute colleagues step into the Thunderdome for a thoughtful discussion of the issues of the day, and one leaves. The topic of this evening's causerie, to be debated with pikes, shillelaghs, chainsaws and the odd rhetorical flourish: Opinion polls show Americans to be evenly divided over Mr. Bush's handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. How badly will the submersion of New Orleans damage his presidency -- if at all?

And now the contestants. In this corner: he's risky, he's frisky, he peddles whiskey, he'll rough you up like Robert Fisky -- Billmon, who maintains that the President is hurtin' for certain and it only gets worse from here:
It's a generally accepted truism that disasters -- like wars -- usually cause people to rally around their president, no matter how weak or ineffectual he may actually be. One of the reasons Shrub was able to recover from his rather disastrous day of playing hide and seek on 9/11 was the fact that most Americans wanted to believe, needed to believe, that he was in control. Even Jimmy Carter, at one of the many low points of his presidency, got a bump from the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.

The polling editors at the Washington Post must know this, which makes it even harder to understand the interpretation they put on their latest survey numbers on Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina:
Slightly less than half -- 46 percent -- approve of the way Bush has handled relief efforts while 47 percent disapprove, a result that might offer some cheer to beleaguered White House staffers who feared a stronger negative reaction.
Maybe Richard Morin and Claudia Deane really are stupid enough to buy the lowballing spin put out by the White House. As Josh Marshall notes, the Rovians may be disasters at handling natural disasters, but they're amazingly adept at managing real crises, like the political fallout from Bush's decision to ignore Hurricane Katrina until 80% of New Orleans was under water. At this point, manipulating dumb reporters is probably a good way for the Rovians to relax and work off some tension. God knows, they've had plenty of experience at it . . . .

When the Post did its survey Friday night, the result was still something close to a draw. But public opinion tends to react to events with a lag. I wouldn't be surprised if Bush's numbers look a good deal worse in a few days, as the death toll rises and the full story of our national disgrace continues to unfold. Spin can be a powerful force, as can journalistic stupidity and the willful suspension of disbelief. But reality has a few tricks up its sleeve, too.
And in this corner: the Moscow Mauler, the Beast of Burlesque, the Count Dracula of Spectacular Vernacular -- Chris Floyd, who argues that Bush won't be hurt by numbers because Bush can't be hurt by numbers:
Let's be clear about one thing. Nothing that has happened in the past week -- the mass destruction in the Mississippi Delta, the obliteration of the city of New Orleans, the murderous abandonment of thousands of people to death, chaos and disease -- will change the Bush Administration or American politics at all. Not one whit. The Bush Administration will not reverse its brutal policies; its Congressional rubber-stamps will not revolt against the White House; the national Democrats will not suddenly grow a spine. There will be no real change, and the bitter corrosion of injustice, indifference and inhumanity that is consuming American society will go on as before.

One proof of this can be found in the first polls coming out after the disaster, which show that around 45 percent of the American people approve of Bush's handling of the relief effort. It seems inconceivable that any sentient being could witness the agonizing results of the Bush team's dithering, dilatory response -- an agony played out in the full glare of non-stop media coverage -- and not come away with a sense of towering anger at this criminal incompetence. But it's obvious that nearly half the American people have now left the "reality-based community" altogether; they see only what they want to see, a world bathed in the hazy, golden nimbus of the Leader. The fact -- the undeniable truth -- that behind this carefully-concocted mirage lies nothing more than a steaming pile of rancid, rotting offal means nothing to these true believers. The Lie is better, the Lie is more comforting, the Lie lets them keep feeding on the suffering of others without guilt or shame . . . .

Just as the media have always overhyped Bush's popularity, they are now overhyping the "political crisis" he is supposedly facing. There is no political crisis whatsoever, if by "political crisis" you mean something that will cause Bush to alter his politics or his policies. The war in Iraq will go on. The war against the poor will go on. The slow destruction of middle-class security and stability will go on. The long and ferocious rightwing campaign against the very idea of a "common good" will go on, unabated - perhaps even strengthened as it faces a backlash from the half of the American public that actually accepts the reality of what they saw in New Orleans and all along the ravaged Gulf Coast.

This is what you must understand: Bush and his faction do not care if they have "the consent of the governed" or not. They are not interested in governing at all, in responding to the needs and desires and will of the people. They are only interested in ruling, in using the power of the state to force their radical agenda of elitist aggrandizement and ideological crankery on the nation, and on the world.
We do not wish to influence the betting because, seeming contradictions aside, we happen to believe that both of our agonists are right (which may be an example of negative capability, or -- more likely -- poor reading-comprehension skills). For the sporting types among you who insist on placing a wager, however, we will mention a couple of items from Josh Marshall that you may wish to consider first:

1.) If bad press does force Bush to play pin-the-rap-on-the-donkey, FEMA chief Michael Brown is a painfully obvious candidate for accountability:
The government's disaster chief waited until hours after Hurricane Katrina had already struck the Gulf Coast before asking his boss to dispatch 1,000 Homeland Security employees to the region - and gave them two days to arrive, according to internal documents.

Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, sought the approval from Homeland Security Secretary Mike Chertoff roughly five hours after Katrina made landfall on Aug. 29. Brown said that among duties of these employees was to "convey a positive image" about the government's response for victims.
2.) However: it may be harder than anticipated for Bush to evade responsibility. It's been widely reported that Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, briefed Brown and Chertoff last Sunday on the "potential deadly effects" of Hurricane Katrina. Less widely known is the fact that he also briefed the President in a video conference call to the Crawford ranch that same day.

At right: President George W. Bush is handed a map by Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin, center, during a video teleconference with federal and state emergency management organizations on Hurricane Katrina from his Crawford, Texas ranch on Sunday August 28, 2005. White House photo by Paul Morse.

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