May 25, 2013
A damaging storm
Isaac coincides with GOP convention, bringing back memories of Bush’s disastrous handling of Katrina
Precisely when Republicans needed to transform their convention into a political storm that could boost Romney’s chances of unseating US President Obama, the arrival of tropical storm Isaac to the Gulf of Mexico region is again diverting attention from the nomination of a candidate who has struggled to motivate conservatives and appeal to moderate voters.
Tropical storm Isaac is threatening the Republican National Convention in an unusual way. Though Tampa, the city in Florida where the convention will be held, will probably not be affected, Americans are paying more attention to the storm than to the Republican convention. Moreover, because the storm appears headed toward New Orleans, there are inevitable references to the unforgettable storm that hit that city in 2005, Hurricane Katrina. The deplorable response to Katrina helped contribute to the negative perception of the Bush administration.
President Bush’s popularity never recovered after Katrina. In late 2005, Bush lost the momentum he had gained in the 2004 re-election and, a year later, Democrats won the mid-term elections and regained control of the House of Representatives.
The last thing a Republican presidential candidate wants right before the convention where he will be officially nominated is a public opinion reminder of the performance of the last Republican president. In the last few months, Romney has made every effort to distance himself from the Bush legacy. The former president was not invited to speak at the convention. However, with the storm threatening New Orleans the same week as Republicans meet in Tampa, the silence and absence of Bush will further underline the bad memories of his administration’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The 2012 campaign has so far been mostly focused on President Obama’s handling of the economy. Romney has tried to turn the election into a referendum on Obama’s four-year term. The Republican convention is an occasion for Republicans to harshly criticize Obama and blame him for the difficult economic times in the US. The message to be repeated for four days was that Obama was just not capable of fixing the economy.
In response, Democrats have mounted an aggressive negative campaign against Romney. They have cast the Republican candidate as a flip-flopper. Democrats have built on the attacks several Republican presidential hopefuls mounted against Romney during the primaries, accusing him of dishonesty, lack of principles and being concerned more with money than with the fate of American workers. Obama has tried to cast himself as the only alternative to a Republican candidate who will worsen the economic conditions and will adopt reforms to benefit the extremely wealthy and hurt the middle class.
With tropical storm Isaac looming over New Orleans — and bringing back Katrina memories — the Obama camp has an exceptional opportunity to counter the negative message coming out of Tampa. Democrats will build on the media coverage of tropical storm Isaac over New Orleans and the references to Katrina to remind Americans what happened under the last Republican administration. The underlining message will be that, regardless of how disappointed people might be with Obama, the Republican alternative is much worse. The Obama campaign has already tested the strategy. In fact, Democrats have run ads reminding Americans that the current crisis was initiated under a Republican administration and that, under Obama, the US has escaped a much worse crisis.
The message of hope, central to the 2008 campaign, has been replaced with a message of fear. Democrats have built support for Obama on the basis of fear of what Republicans might do if they control Congress and the White House. Among minorities, the Democrats have mounted a fear campaign among Latinos on immigration, among African-Americans on social programmes for inner cities, among the elderly on social security and among the poor on social services. With Katrina memories being brought back by tropical storm Isaac, Democrats have new ammunition for their fear campaign.
Historically, the party out of the White House holds its own convention first. Four years ago, Democrats held their convention a week before Republicans. The day the Republican convention was inaugurated, Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf coast. Several prominent Republican figures — including former president Bush and former vice-president Cheney, skipped the convention. Given their unpopularity, the John McCain campaign welcomed those absences. However, the fact that other Republican key figures used the hurricane as an excuse to skip the convention underscored the perception that McCain had an uphill battle and would probably lose to Obama.
It is unlikely that key figures will use tropical storm Isaac as an excuse to skip the convention this time. However, the fact that the weather is attracting more attention than the convention is not good news for Republicans. Mitt Romney needs the convention to improve his poll numbers. Normally, conventions lift the candidate about 10% in polls. Romney desperately needs that boost. Unfortunately for him, tropical storm Isaac is negatively affecting him by shifting attention away from his nomination and by bringing back memories of one of the worst moments of the last Republican administration.