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Gustav is now the third name on John McCain's ticket. Depending on how McCain responds, he may actually benefit from its presence—and those in the hurricane's path could also benefit from the politicization of the response.
As the hurricane bears down on the Gulf Coast, McCain has been thrust into a quasi-presidential role of reacting to the weather on the public stage. He has all but halted the convention. The first day will be limited to just parliamentary activities. Tuesday is also probably shot. His campaign has chartered a plane to send worried delegates back home. The vast roster of fundraisers in town has been put to work raising money for the relief effort. The party atmosphere has been redirected. The Distilled Spirits Council, aka the booze lobby, has turned its Monday party into a fundraiser for the Red Cross.
Almost exactly three years to the day that President Bush created a new standard for botching the political response to a natural disaster, McCain is not going to repeat Bush's mistake. On Sunday, he flew with Sarah Palin to Mississippi to survey preparations. When the GOP announced it was scaling back the convention, McCain kicked off the announcement by appearing by satellite. "I wanna thank all of my fellow Republicans as we take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats and we say, 'America, we're with you. America, we're going to care for these people in their time of need,' and we're gonna display it in every possible way as Americans always have and Americans always will."
For the moment, the disaster benefits McCain, because like all great political moments, it allows him to act authentically and yet benefit politically. One of the worst political clichés actually is true at this moment: Good policy is good politics. All McCain has to do is keep his aides off the phones talking about the politics of the storm, and he'll be in a position to benefit from it. (And so far, he looks like he's done that, too.)
The theme of McCain's campaign was already going to be that he puts the country first while Barack Obama puts himself first. The second phrase will drop, but McCain gets a chance to underscore the first half by turning his convention into a national moment of service. "A call to service for all," as his Web site puts it. (Obama has a Web site, too).
By taking bold public steps, he also burnishes his credentials as a crisis manager and distances himself from Bush. McCain has often criticized Bush for not calling the nation to action after Sept. 11. Now he can show how he would be different rather than just tell us about it. (That Bush and Cheney had to cancel their Monday night appearances at the convention is also good news for McCain.)
Before the storm, convention delegates were buzzing with delight about the Palin pick. "There's just a zing in everyone's step," one delegate told me before exiting our hotel elevator. Republican women are thrilled to have one of their own. One gun enthusiast gushed about having a fellow "stompin' momma" on the ticket. Evangelicals are delighted not only because Palin is a woman of faith, but because by choosing Palin, McCain has sent a signal about how much he cares about that part of his party. Delegates can continue to celebrate the pick without seeming overtly political—and Palin gets a little room to practice for her new role.
The Obama campaign, meanwhile, has toned down its rhetoric, and the DNC has shuttered its "More of the Same" opposition office in St. Paul at least for a day. Don Fowler, the South Carolina Democratic Party chairman, didn't get the memo and stupidly joked that the hurricane was God's favor to Democrats. (There has been a small mini-trend in weather-related stupidity this election cycle. Before Fowler, the boobery prize belonged to the Focus on the Family commentator who had mused about praying for rain on Obama's speech in Denver.)
When and if the GOP Convention gets under way, it will be all about service and sacrifice—which are easy themes for Republicans to speechify about and hard for the Democrats to knock directly. If Democrats continue their current strategy and attack McCain and Palin for offering nothing new, they'll run the risk of seeming too political before the national pause on politics is over. Or they'll look like they're not sufficiently committed to such all-American virtues like service and national brotherhood.
It may seem crass to talk about the politics of this event, but in the post-Katrina world, no natural disaster can be divorced from its political implications. No one wants to admit this. But both campaigns are acting politically if for no other reason than to appear as though they're not acting politically. At any rate, it may just be possible that politics is helpful in a situation like this: The political impulse for both McCain and Obama is to do as much as they can to help those affected.
If you've read this far and still feel ambivalent about thinking about the politics of an event in which many people are already being displaced and suffering, then allow me to make a practical suggestion for putting politics here to good use here. Both candidates have boasted about their talents for bipartisanship. Both have also paid for ad time all over the country for advertisements (in some cases, attack ads) that are scheduled to air over the next few days.
So here's my idea: McCain and Obama should create a joint ad calling for donations and prayers to those affected by Gustav, and run those in place of the ads already scheduled. After all, attack ads—and attack ads in response to attack ads—make it onto the air in matter of hours. So there's no doubt the McCain and Obama campaigns could do this if they wanted to. If you think they should, call them: Obama's at (866) 675-2008, McCain's at (703) 418-2008. No one is practicing politics right now, so they should be able to respond to your call.