Friday, September 23, 2005

What Would a Strong Leader Do?

[[D I S A S T E R S]] * This can’t be good. The Associated Press reports that Hurricane Rita is barreling toward the upper Texas-Louisiana coast with top wind speeds of 135 mph. Forecasters expect the storm to make landfall sometime on Saturday morning. Although early predictions had Rita clobbering the historic Gulf Coast island city of Galveston, Texas (which still remembers all too well its disastrous hurricane experience of 105 years ago), and moving on inland from there to Houston, about 50 miles to the northwest, the current expectation is that it will strike instead around Beaumont and Port Arthur, a pair of oil- and chemical-refinery towns 75 miles east of Houston. That path would steer the brunt of this now Category 3 tempest away from New Orleans; yet Rita’s sustained rains and winds have already sent water flooding over breeches in a recently patched levee and into the Crescent City’s Ninth Ward, one of the areas that suffered most severely from flooding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Meanwhile, The New York Times says that warnings of the storm’s approach have caused “as many as 2.5 million people” to flee Houston, jamming evacuation routes and “creating colossal 100-mile-long traffic jams that left many people stranded and out of gas.” In fact, the exodus from Galveston County has been so intense, reports today’s Galveston County Daily News, that an “eerie” calm has settled over the area: “Boarded windows, duct taped doors and plenty of messages to the county’s would-be visitor[s] were practically the only signs of life overnight.” Reuters foresees 6,000 homes being destroyed by Rita and 16,000 people being left without a place to live.

George W. Bush, afraid of looking weak and unconcerned again in the face of an oncoming natural disaster, as he did in the run-up to Hurricane Katrina’s August 29 assault on Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama (remember those photographs of the prez blithely playing a guitar in San Diego, California, while New Orleans took a bath?), is supposed to leave Washington, D.C., today for his adopted state of Texas. There, the AP says, he’ll briefly “review preparations and thank first responders who were among the hundreds of emergency personnel dispatched to expected disaster areas,” before flying off to safer ground in Colorado Springs, Colorado, home of the U.S. Northern Command, from which he intends to monitor the hurricane’s approach. As Salon puts it: “Message: I’m in charge here.”

Aside from the ultimate scope of the devastation caused by this not-so-lovely Rita, the question is what affect Bush’s photo-op stopover (not merely a flyover this time) in the Lone Star State will have on his recently depressed job approval ratings. As blogger and poll analyst Mark Blumenthal notes at Mystery Pollster, “if Katrina did not alter Americans’ overall rating of Bush, they certainly did collapse perceptions of Bush on one key dimension: Being a ‘strong and decisive leader.’” For instance, a Washington Post/ABC News poll taken shortly after Katrina struck, found only half of respondents characterizing Bush as a “strong leader,” a 12-point loss since May 2004. Over the same period, the proportion of people who believe the prez can be “trusted in a crisis” fell from 60 percent to 49 percent today. Will the 57 percent of Americans who currently disapprove of Bush’s performance in office suddenly change their minds because he appears less bumbling in his reactions to Rita than he did to Katrina? Or will they roll their eyes at the fact that Bush’s motivation here is so palpably political, and dismiss his willingness to show concern over Rita simply as the result of its hitting his beloved Texas, which has a Republican governor, rather than Louisiana and New Orleans, both of which are led by Democrats? Could Bush actually come out of Hurricane Rita looking worse for having played politics and favorites, than if he’d stayed behind at the White House and monitored the storm, as he did Katrina? Is Bush walking into another damned-if-he-does, damned-if-he-doesn’t moment?

UPDATE: After insisting earlier today that he needed to go to Texas in advance of Hurricane Rita, and that he wouldn’t be in the way, Bush has flip-flopped. The Associated Press reports that he’s cancelled a trip to San Antonio because the search-and-rescue team he’d hoped to meet and greet there “were being relocated as the huge storm shifted course.” Instead, the prez is heading directly for NORTHCOM.

ADDENDUM: In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a South Carolina-based anti-abortion group called Columbia Christians for Life proclaimed that the storm was God’s retribution for Louisiana hosting “10 child-murder-by-abortion centers.” I’ll be interested to see how this same group, and other right-wing religious fringies, spin Rita’s destruction of the Lone Star State. After all, within the last year the Texas Legislature has passed laws requiring that girls under the age of 18 not only notify their parents of an abortion, but acquire “written parental consent and a state-approved form,” as the NARAL Pro-Choice Texas site explains. “Under a 2003 law that bans abortions after the first 26 weeks, the parental consent law could send Texas doctors to death row. If a doctor performs an abortion and fails to obtain parental consent during the third trimester, he or she could face capital murder charges.” So, guys, what is God punishing Texas for? Suggestive cheerleading, maybe?

READ MORE:Escape from Houston: How I Fled Rita,” by Mimi Swartz (Slate); “Stormy Spins in a Vortex,” by Maureen Dowd (The New York Times); “It’s Texas’ Turn to Seek Shelter,” by Larry Copeland and Orel Dorell (USA Today); “From Cotton Port to Beach Town: The Lesson of Galveston’s 1900 Hurricane,” by Ari Kelman (Slate); “Poll: Storm Changed Americans’ Attitudes,” by Erin McClam (AP); “High Level Anti-Bush Storm,” by Pascal Riché (Libération); “As Hurricane Rita Threatens Devastation, Scientist Blames Global Warming,” by Michael McCarthy (The Independent); “Wreckage and Responsibility,” by Craig Crawford (Congressional Quarterly).

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