Wednesday, September 21, 2005

How Do You Spell Relief?

[[P O L I T I C S]] * Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney--George W. Bush’s pick to be “hurricane relief czar”? The first-term Republican denies rumors that he’s the White House’s top choice to lead the budget-busting post-Hurricane Katrina clean-up and rebuilding efforts in New Orleans and elsewhere along America’s Gulf Coast. A Romney spokesperson tells the Boston Herald that “Our office hasn’t been contacted by the White House nor has our office contacted the White House about this. Governor Romney loves the job he has and is intent on serving his full term.” However, Romney has certainly made his voice heard in the storm’s aftermath, whether he was blasting the federal government’s sluggish disaster response (“I look at FEMA and I shake my head”) or defending Bush from blame for all the death and destruction. And political analyst Jon Keller from WBZ4-TV in Boston reports that “two top Republican sources” have made “tentative inquiries about Romney’s availability to help guide the recovery. ... [O]ur source says while no offer has been made, Romney is ‘on everyone’s short list for the job.’”

Romney, a Ted Danson look-alike, is only one of several potential candidates for hurricane czar. Also touted have been former Secretary of State Colin Powell, ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt, and General Tommy Franks, retired head of the U.S. Central Command. But conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan speculates that Romney, whose job approval ratings are every bit as low as Bush’s, yet who is still being touted as “the next big thing in the Republican Party” and a potential GOP presidential candidate three years from now, may ultimately be tapped for this new role--especially if White House political adviser Karl Rove calculates that raising the Bay State governor’s national profile is the best way to “prevent a Giuliani or [Arizona Senator John] McCain from winning the nomination in 2008.” (Talk is that Rove wants the ambitious Rudy to run for vice president, instead; and the antipathy between Rove and McCain is storied, dating back at least to the 2000 presidential race, during which the Rove-led Bush campaign spread ugly rumors that McCain’s wife was a drug addict and that the senator was both mentally unstable and the father of an illegitimate black child.)

The fact that Romney has no previous experience in managing large-scale recovery operations (he was the managing partner of a Boston equity firm and led the planning of the 2002 Winter Olympics before being elected governor) probably doesn’t matter to an administration so seemingly unconcerned with the appropriateness of political appointments. And Bush can beguile him with the historical precedent of Herbert Hoover having won the Republican nomination for president in 1928 after leading relief efforts in the aftermath of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. It’ll be hard for Romney to continue saying no to this czarship, if Rove pledges in return to assist the governor in positioning himself for a White House run in 2008. And even Atlantic Monthly portrays Romney, son of the late Michigan governor George W. Romney, as having a “legitimate shot” at being the next GOP presidential nominee. The magazine explains:
One thing Romney has going for him right now, of course, is his relative novelty. On the national scene people haven’t yet had a chance to grow tired of him, or to examine the warts and the skeletons. There’s a chance that he’ll turn out to be the political flavor of the month; that before long the Republican Party’s attention will move on to the next new thing. By some measures Romney hasn’t worn well in Massachusetts: this spring his approval ratings fell from a high of 56 percent to 43 percent, as he staked out unpopular positions against stem-cell research and gay marriage.

But here’s betting that Romney won’t fade away. There are too many things in his favor. To name just a few: As a Republican in a Democratic state, he can plausibly claim to be a moderate when it suits him. He has an illustrious pedigree (his father was a Cabinet secretary as well as a governor and a presidential candidate). He has an impressive business background (which is attractive to both Main Street and Wall Street Republicans). His stands against stem-cell research and gay marriage, as well as abortion, make him appealing to social conservatives. His state adjoins New Hampshire, site of the first primary. And at fifty-eight he is virile and handsome. The guy just looks like a president--hardly a negligible consideration. The abiding uncertainty is how his Mormonism will play. Much depends on whether it is seen as irrelevant, as an interesting quirk, or--worst case--as something that will scare off both red-state fundamentalists (who have sometimes seen Mormonism as non-Christian) and blue-state secularists.
With a number of possible contenders for the presidency in ’08 (including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden, Russ Feingold, Bill Frist, George Allen, Chuck Hagel, and McCain) already working the national lecture circuit and throwing their weight behind causes that boost their name familiarity, the Massachusetts governor could use the leg-up offered by a high-profile post like that of hurricane czar. However, he would also be reneging on his promise to serve out a complete term in Boston--something that his rivals would surely use against him later (as Bill Clinton’s did in 1992). And his renown in leading the recovery efforts might be compromised by his having to share responsibilities with so many other people who want credit for their roles--or, in the case of Rove, who’s reportedly already been placed “in charge of the [post-Katrina] reconstruction effort,” want to ensure that the currently weakened Bush benefits first from the good will generated by Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts.

Much may depend on whether the prez can turn around his dismal polling statistics. Should those improve soon, Bush might be able to ignore calls from Capitol Hill for a name-brand figure to lead the relief effort, and keep the whole campaign centralized in the West Wing, with himself as its public face. On the other hand, if his numbers continue to slide (as they likely will), then the prez will want to demonstrate some “leadership” by assigning the task of recovery direction to somebody with less baggage and a fresher face, whom Americans might actually trust. If he’s unwilling to turn the job over to a guy like Witt, who boasts estimable qualifications and a history of bipartisan support, but zero loyalty to Bush (Witt, after all, was Clinton’s FEMA director), then Romney’s phone might start ringing off the hook. Soon.

ADDENDUM: There’s nothing at all in the latest AP-Ipsos poll to put a smile on Bush’s face. That survey shows the prez’s top two priorities--the Iraq war and hurricane relief--in conflict. When asked to choose, 42 percent of respondents say they’d cut Iraq spending to free up money for Gulf Coast relief, and 29 percent say they want to delay or cancel Republican tax cuts. “That’s a whopping 71 percent backing options that Bush doesn’t even have on the table,” notes the Associated Press. Two-thirds of those polled say Bush is spending far too much on Iraq, and spending it unwisely. And 57 percent disapprove of the way Bush is doing his job. The most interesting finding in this poll may be the political leanings of respondents. Forty-nine percent side strongly or moderately with Democrats, while only 41 percent lean Republican. As the AP observes, “there was no gap in self-identification a year ago.” No wonder GOP strategists are worried that Bush’s troubles will negatively affect their party’s standing in next year’s midterm elections.

READ MORE:Tax Breaks for Katrina May Aid Rich More,” by Mary Dalrymple (AP); “Katrina’s Cost May Test GOP Harmony,” by Shailagh Murray and Jim VandeHei (The Washington Post); “Bush’s Hard Fall,” by Garrison Keillor (Salon); “Promises, Promises,” by Gene Lyons (Arkansas Democrat Gazette); “Bush’s Words on Iraq Echo LBJ in 1967” (AP); “Message: I Can’t,” by Maureen Dowd (The New York Times); “Pelosi Offers to Nix Pet Projects to Help Pay for Katrina. DeLay’s Response? Nah,” by David R. Mark (JABBS); “Bad Daddy” (BuzzFlash); “Neither Compassionate, Nor Conservative,” by Marshall Auerback (; “Bullhorn Bullbleep” (James Wolcott).

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