WASHINGTON – Politicians know every hurricane means avoiding disaster – including their own.
Intent on showing the empathy and crisis leadership voters want, Republicans from Mitt Romney to Southern governors scrambled to shape their tone and tactics Monday as an ominous storm barreled past their national convention site in Tampa, Fla., and toward the broader Gulf Coast.
Political peril awaits those who fumble disaster preparedness and responses. That’s the legacy of Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 storm that forever changed how responses to disasters would be judged.
Democrats also were quietly making their own calculations, mindful of how one insensitively timed political speech or line of attack could bring blowback. On a low-profile day at the White House, President Barack Obama got briefings on Tropical Storm Isaac and went forward – for now – with plans for a campaign trip beginning today to Iowa, Colorado and Virginia.
Seven years ago, Katrina’s blow was catastrophic, and an embarrassingly slow response from the federal government contributed to the toll and helped tarnish President George W. Bush’s second term. That episode became a potential make-or-break test for elected leaders to show smart politics and an agile, able response.
It was Bush’s Air Force One flyover of Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans that cemented the image of him as a detached leader – repeating a perception problem that his presidential dad, George H.W. Bush, faced for the federal response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
The younger Bush did not want to disrupt local rescue efforts but later wished he had landed in Baton Rouge, La., to show the people he cared.
“Its benefits would have been good public relations,” Bush wrote in his memoirs. “But public relations matter when you are president.”
Or running for president.
In brief comments Monday, Romney showed he was trying to find the balance.
“Our thoughts are with the people that are in the storm’s path,” Romney said as he and his wife, Ann, walked into a high school auditorium near his New Hampshire summer home to rehearse his convention speech.
Yet asked if he thought about canceling the event, he said: “We’ve got a great convention ahead.”
Isaac forced a Southern swath of Republican governors to change course.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant all delayed or canceled their trips to Tampa.
Jindal, highly regarded in the party, and Scott, a face of the host state, had both been scheduled to give speeches. Jindal said he was staying home because there “is no time for politics here in Louisiana” during such a storm.
In Tampa, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who guided his state through Katrina, said proper empathy would be shown to the people affected most. But he said the Republican Party cannot neglect its big chance to spread the convention message it had hoped to offer in the first place.
Obama, meanwhile, was showing his presidential side. He declared a state of emergency in Louisiana on Monday and reached out to Gulf Coast governors. The White House also made sure to announce that Obama, in his phone call to the Florida governor, offered any help the administration could provide, including to “ensure the safety of those visiting the state for the Republican National Convention.”
The feel of the GOP convention is already different.
Republicans essentially cut out the first day of activities on Monday as attention centered on Isaac’s path. It was reminiscent of four years ago, when presidential candidate John McCain and his party shortened their Minnesota convention out of political respect as Hurricane Gustav bore down on the Gulf coast.
Isaac, a tropical storm, is not expected to pack anywhere close to the wallop of Katrina even as it makes its way toward the northern Gulf Coast.
But the political Katrina factor remains timely. Isaac was expected to hit the Gulf Coast by today or Wednesday – the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
The Katrina lesson applies to all natural disasters, from fires to tornadoes, as well as human tragedies like the mass shooting in July in Aurora, Colo. Obama and Romney both spoke at that time about the need for America to pull together, although harsh politics resumed shortly, as they are likely to again soon.