Standing before the smouldering ruins of the twin towers four years ago, George W. Bush revelled in an unprecedented political opportunity. In the wake of 9-11, Bush’s cry for justice and easy division of the world into “the willing” and “the evil” soothed an anxious nation and gave his presidency a cause notably absent during his first year in office. And Americans, stupefied by the worst attacks ever on their soil, rallied behind his call. Even in the face of egregious failures, such as the non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and increasing poverty and child mortality rates at home, America’s prevailing faith in Bush hardly faltered before late 2004.
Until recent months, the vexing issue for Bush’s opponents was how to combat the electorate’s illogical support for the administration in the face of so many failings. Throughout the last presidential election, Democratic candidate John F. Kerry failed to disarm the cohesive Republican message. By rallying their conservative base to support “moral” issues - patriotism, anti-abortion, and gay marriage - the Bush administration drew attention away from its own disappointing track record. Even now, the impressive PR machine working for the Oval Office has proved more convincing than any feat of government, while the Democrats struggle to craft an intelligent and effective response.
The fortunes of the Republican Party took a rapid dive when Hurricane Katrina hit the Louisiana coast on August 29, 2005. Images across the globe portrayed a devastation no president could have averted. But when the nation looked for strength of leadership in this time of domestic crisis, the commander-in-chief was AWOL. Instead, Americans awoke to terrifying TV footage of bursting levies, rioting and looting.But Bush cronyism riddled the ranks of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, stymieing their hapless response efforts.
Bush must have hoped that Katrina and all she revealed would prove to be rock bottom for his administration. Reports from impacted areas called attention to innumerable socio-economic problems which, until Katrina, had no way of reaching national television screens. But as poor, largely African-American citizens publicly suffered in full view of the living rooms of the greater United States, a consciousness awakened in the constituency. A government which had tirelessly asserted its commitment to American safety and security demonstrated its complete incapacity to deal with another mass disaster on American soil. And so the refrain rang out, what if this was a terrorist attack?
There was no immediate answer from the White House. The conspicuous absence of the president’s senior adviser, Karl Rove, owing to kidney stones, rendered Bush virtually incapacitated. It was not until Rove’s return to the president’s side that Bush made clear policy pronouncements about how the government would handle the disaster. After days of inaction, even conservative journalists expressed concern over Bush’s evident incompetence without Rove constantly feeding him advice.
But Bush’s political woes did not abate in the wake of Katrina. The nomination of Harriet Miers to fill Sandra Day O’Conner’s seat on the Supreme Court disappointed the fierce conservatives in the Bush camp, forcing her to withdraw her nomination on October 28. The Oval Office offered several alternate reasons for Miers’ departure, but representatives of both parties cited Republican disappointment over her questionable dedication to conservative ideologies as the actual explanation.
On the same day that Miers left Washington, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, was indicted for his involvement in leaking the identity of undercover CIA agent Valery Plame in 2003. Special counsel in the case, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, oversaw the grand jury indict Libby, leading to his immediate resignation. Again, questions swirled: How could Rove, Libby’s boss, not have known the full story? Moreover, how could the president, Rove’s ostensible boss, not have known too? Some pundits called for the resignation of Karl Rove for his purported role in the scandal, casting further doubt over the integrity of the Bush administration.
The flood waters of Hurricane Katrina washed away the veneer of the Bush presidency, exposing critical ineptitude. Now, faced with a myriad of political problems and falling approval ratings, accountability knocks on the Oval Office door. The political battlefield is once more open to the ailing Democrats. With this windfall of fresh ammunition, the Democrats will have no excuses if they fail galvanise their own party. And if they capitalise on this perfect storm in the Republican camp, the Democrats stand a fighting chance of seizing the throne from the Republicans in 2008.
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