How will John McCain and Barack Obama perform in the face of Gustav? Their reaction to this crisis may well determine the course of this campaign—perhaps even the outcome of the election. Right now McCain holds the initiative. The national spotlight is directed upon him, and he enjoys a structural advantage in terms of access to the business end of the government relief effort. But hurricanes and presidential campaigns oftentimes defy human agency or prognostication. Will this force of nature prove advantageous to either candidate? Time will tell.

Perhaps even more significant, Gustav potentially offers George Bush an opportunity to come in from the cold after his three-year political storm.

By the way, it is worth noting that Democrats are not only shocked and horrified that a major American political party would nominate a relative novice to a national ticket, now it turns out that they are also revolted at the thought of partisans taking political advantage of a natural disaster (such as a Gulf Coast hurricane).


ITEM ONE: Some historical context.

Hurricanes have played major roles in presidential elections. Before there was a FEMA, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, a 1928 presidential candidate, proved to be a one-man federal emergency management administrator when he personally took control of relief efforts along the lower Mississippi following the catastrophic Flood of 1927. Hoover's actions pioneered the concept of federal relief for natural disasters on that scale and cemented his reputation as a great organizational genius at the disposal of humanity.

More recently, Hurricane Andrew (1992) not only wreaked havoc on Florida (the worst American natural disaster up until that time), but the sluggishness of George H.W. (41) Bush's FEMA, in the wake of the devastating storm, also inflicted great damage on the Bush re-election effort that fall.

Ironically, and almost forgotten, a series of Florida hurricanes in 2004 allowed George Bush (43) and his FEMA (headed by Michael Brown) an opportunity to perform with high proficiency and rally to the aid of buffeted Floridians. If you think hard enough, you may remember the images of a fatigued but smiling George Bush dressed in dungarees slinging hash for displaced neighbors. Not unconnected, President Bush took the perennial toss-up Sunshine State with ease that November.

ACT TWO: 2005

Of course, when we think of George Bush, Michael Brown, and a hurricane, we think of KATRINA, the devastating super storm that pummeled New Orleans and the Mississippi coast and beyond. Katrina proved a disastrously debilitating public relations nightmare for the Bush Administration. Undoubtedly, the President and his team misjudged and mishandled the natural disaster. In fairness, however, the Category Four deluge overwhelmed the best laid schemes of mice and men. While it is tough for us to admit our limitations as all-powerful humans, in truth, the natural force of Katrina simply over-matched even the power of the President of the United States.

Notwithstanding, the media and the opposition party piled on the President, de-emphasizing the unprepared Democratic governor of Louisiana and the not-ready-for-prime-time local leadership in New Orleans--also ignoring, for the most part, the more successful response in Mississippi spearheaded by a Republican governor.

Regardless of the complicated web of events and the multiple actors and motives, Katrina became the symbol of a failed presidency. Katrina exposed Bush “cronyism” and incompetence, GOP corruption and a systemic lack of compassion, and, perhaps most importantly, the international embarrassment of Katrina crystallized public frustration regarding our dreadfully dispiriting position in IRAQ. Although the judgment had been percolating for some time, suddenly, the Bush fortunes dropped precipitously (and gas prices rose just as abruptly)--and stayed there. Over the last three years, George Bush has suffered the lowest sustained approval ratings in the history of the American presidency.


How will this storm be different?

I do not know the name of the current director of FEMA, but, whoever he is, his boss, Michael Chertoff, chief of Homeland Security, is onsite in Baton Rouge directing operations for the feds. The old governor of Louisiana is gone. The new governor is everywhere, appearing ultra-competent, breathtakingly articulate, and exceedingly telegenic. He is on every newscast and flawlessly in command of the situation, comfortably discussing any possible contingency. The old mayor of New Orleans is a new man, reborn and on top of an almost comprehensive evacuation of the Big Easy.

Where is George? He is on his way to Texas (and assuredly South Louisiana as soon as he gets the go-ahead to go in). He is conspicuously monitoring the situation, eschewing all invitations to birthday soirees, GOP conventions, and any celebrations that might include a Mexican hat dance. All systems go.

Added to the additional preparation and experience at every level, Gustav is almost certain to be less powerful, less lethal, and, as a result, much less catastrophic than the tragedy of three years ago. Ironically, for many casual observers (even as the mainstream media takes every opportunity to roll the tape of the Katrina abomination), this less calamitous episode will translate into better storm management on the part of the government.

EPILOGUE: An Opportunity to Forgive George Bush?

Much has been made of the fact that Gustav has blown George Bush and Dick Cheney off the GOP stage in St. Paul today. That helps politically--without a doubt. The Democrats have placed most of their eggs in the "McSame" basket. It was always a strained and disingenuous line of attack, but the lack of a Bush-Cheney primetime appearance at the McCain nominating convention helps to make the connection even more attenuated.

Perhaps even more significant, however, is that the government performance in the face of Gustav may offer the President a modicum of redemption. Could the American people, after three years of sustained anger directed at the White House, take this opportunity to forgive and re-assess a bit? Just as the Katrina failure seemed to typify the larger fiasco playing out in this administration that included Iraq of 2005, the potential triumph over Mother Nature, in light of the much more successful Iraq of 2008, might finally stanch the President's long, slow, three-year bleed.

The Lagniappe:
In a tight race for president, even a slight upward re-evaluation of the Bush years would help John McCain tremendously.