On the last stop of John McCain’s umpteenth tour in recent memory—this one visitng "America’s forgotten places"—he swung through New Orleans for an opportunity to slam President Bush for his handling of Hurricane Katrine in front of the dilapidated houses of the Lower Ninth Ward. On its surface, the event was meant to look like the return of the maverick, unafraid to dis the current administration. When asked whether he blamed the country’s highest leadership, McCain replied, "Yes." Sure, he has criticized Bush on Katrina, but never this harshly.
But come on—these days, saying Bush botched Katrina is like calling the sky blue. No one is going to challenge you. Heck, even Bush would upbraid himself if he were running again.
Since entering the race, McCain has been accused of abandoning bold stances and drifting in line with the administration. Back in 2001, McCain opposed Bush’s tax cuts; now he favors extending them. (Advisers say he’s "looking forward, not back.") During his first run for the presidency, McCain opposed the overturning of Roe v. Wade ; since then, he has said he would support it. His feelings about ethanol have improved over the years, as has his relationship with Christian right leaders like Jerry Falwell, whom he once denounced as an "agent of intolerance."
All this, combined with McCain’s unwavering support of the Iraq war, has allowed the Democratic candidates to paint McCain as Bush 3.0. So, McCain has to perform a balancing act—embracing the positive aspects of the Bush administration while distancing himself from the negative. It’s the distancing that’s supposed to earn him maverick points.
Unfortunately, slamming Bush on Katrina isn’t being a maverick—it’s common sense. Plus, it’s a subject on which McCain’s record is hardly pristine. In the wake of the hurricane in 2006, McCain said he was willing to commit "$4.2 billion, $10.5 billion, $50.5 billion" to recovery. Yet two months later, he voted against a bill that devoted $29 billion to Gulf Coast recovery, claiming the bill included unnecessary spending. Now McCain is hitting Bush without offering any specifics on how he’d rebuild the city.
Of course, this isn't really being discussed. Instead, critics are harping on McCain’s faux pas: After visiting the Lower Ninth, he said we need to "have a conversation about what to do—rebuild it, tear it down, you know, whatever it is." He later clarified that he meant the community should decide for itself. But the damage was done. If you’re trying to win over New Orleans, you don’t talk about tearing it down, whatever the merits .