Democrats were furious that President Bush didn't take responsibility for the Katrina relief catastrophe. Now they're furious that he did. President Bush's careful admission that he is responsible for the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina "to the extent that the federal government didn't do its job right" is a familiar Washington gambit: "turning the page." Bush's acceptance of responsibility answers cable news' echo-room charge that someone needs to be held accountable. Now the president—having embraced his inner Truman—can move on and change the message.
Liberal pundits had already declared the end of his presidency, but with this rhetorical feint Bush muddies the discussion. He's giving away lots of federal goodies. He's making a prime time speech from Louisiana on Thursday night. Pretty soon, the media and the country might start letting Bush off the hook. Now any Democrat who carps on those federal failures can be brushed off as a hack merely playing politics. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), not immune to playing politics, warned Monday during John Roberts' nomination hearings that "Katrina victims should not be used to score political points."
Still, Democrats have been given their best chance in five years to win back the country. Are they going to blow it?
The first thing they need to do is remind themselves that they have to run on Katrina. The country and the party will be better for it. It's a little beneath Republicans who played politics so artfully with national security to now duck behind teacher's skirt. Democrats need to acknowledge that Karl Rove's justification for Republicans running on their response to 9/11 now applies to Katrina as well. Arguments about life and death issues shouldn't be dainty or avoided at the dinner table.
How do Democrats keep Katrina and the tragically late federal response front and center? By making Katrina part of a larger argument about leadership and national security. Despite the attempt at page turning, George Bush is at the lowest approval rating of his presidency, 42 percent, and his marks for leadership and for trust in a crisis—his strengths—are now down sharply to career lows. In their initial responses to the aftermath of the storm, Democrats used the issue to focus on their traditional strength: addressing the persistent problems of the underclass. "We have to come to terms with ugly truth that skin color, age, and economics played a significant role in who survived and who did not," party chairman Howard Dean said in the wake of the disaster. Dean gins up the one-third of the electorate that represents the Democratic base but alienates independents and moderates who don't need thin partisan narration when they see the images of suffering.
Democrats don't need to rile up their base any more. They need suburban voters, and for suburban voters, Katrina isn't so much about race, it's about homeland security—about what would happen if someone bombs their mall. Some Democrats understand this already. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Clinton have both tried to pitch sensible reconstruction plans for the Gulf while also talking about the glaring problems exposed in the country's homeland security.*
If Democrats are going to seize their moment, though, they are going to have to settle the debate between those palsied by their hatred of Bush and the swing-vote-seeking centrists. The Clinton and Reid arguments have to silence or at least moderate the Dean ones. They have to show, as one Democratic strategist put it, "that we can be the daddy party."
*Correction, Wednesday, September 14, 2005: This article originally and incorrectly identified Harry Reid (D-Nev.) as Majority Leader of the Senate. He is the Minority Leader. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is the Senate Majority Leader.