Monday, September 05, 2005

It's the spin, stupid!

With Bush's approval rating on Katrina under 50%, and, more generally, with widespread disapproval of the government's (all governments') handling of the crisis, the well-oiled White House spin machine has kicked up its operations:

Under the command of President Bush's two senior political advisers, the White House rolled out a plan this weekend to contain the political damage from the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.

It orchestrated visits by cabinet members to the region, leading up to an extraordinary return visit by Mr. Bush planned for Monday, directed administration officials not to respond to attacks from Democrats on the relief efforts, and sought to move the blame for the slow response to Louisiana state officials, according to Republicans familiar with the White House plan.

The effort is being directed by Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, and his communications director, Dan Bartlett. It began late last week after Congressional Republicans called White House officials to register alarm about what they saw as a feeble response by Mr. Bush to the hurricane, according to Republican Congressional aides.

As a result, Americans watching television coverage of the disaster this weekend began to see, amid the destruction and suffering, some of the most prominent members of the administration -- Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Donald H. Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense; and Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state -- touring storm-damaged communities.

Mr. Bush is to return to Louisiana and Mississippi on Monday; his first visit, on Friday, left some Republicans cringing, in part because the president had little contact with residents left homeless.

Republicans said the administration's effort to stanch the damage had been helped by the fact that convoys of troops and supplies had begun to arrive by the time the administration officials turned up. All of those developments were covered closely on television.

In many ways, the unfolding public relations campaign reflects the style Mr. Rove has brought to the political campaigns he has run for Mr. Bush. For example, administration officials who went on television on Sunday were instructed to avoid getting drawn into exchanges about the problems of the past week, and to turn the discussion to what the government is doing now...

In a reflection of what has long been a hallmark of Mr. Rove's tough political style, the administration is also working to shift the blame away from the White House and toward officials of New Orleans and Louisiana who, as it happens, are Democrats.

Nice, eh? I haven't been nearly as critical of Bush as many others have, and I would never suggest that he lacked compassion for the victims of Katrina, but the federal response to the crisis left much to be desired, and I have no doubt that the Bush Administrations deserves some of the blame. But on the polarized playing field of American politics, it's all about scoring political points against the opposition and, in this case, deflecting blame and shifting responsibility elsewhere. Perhaps it's true that state and local government could have done better, too, but this latest White House strategy is simply unbecoming of a presidency that claims to promote individual responsibility and moral accountability.

Unbecoming? How about disgusting? Four years ago, Bush rushed in to take advantage of 9/11, while his spin machine, gleefully backed up by Republican sycophancy, began the task of vilifying Democrats as somehow unpatriotic and certainly not up to the task of combatting international terrorism. Now, Bush and his cronies are once again targeting Democrats and, well, anyone and everyone but themselves. That sordid spin may reflect yet one more desperate effort to resurrect Bush's sagging support and flagging presidency, but, whatever the political motivations, it's truly and utterly vile.

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