Democrats and Black Voter Support, After Katrina

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President Bush's approval rating sank to new lows in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Will the Democratic Party use the Bush administration's botched response to Hurricane Katrina as an opportunity regain ground with black voters?


The federal response to Hurricane Katrina could hamper President Bush's strategy to attract more black voters to the Republican Party. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has talked with a few black leaders after the speech and here she has this report.


In his address to America last night, George Bush made some startlingly frank observations about who was most affected by Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America.

BATES: Los Angeles Congresswoman Diane Watson says addressing the poverty Katrina illustrated may cost the president some political capital with his supporters, who may not agree with his priorities.

Representative DIANE WATSON (Democrat, Los Angeles): He made all of these wonderful and hopeful platitudes. Now is he going to put the political will behind them? And that means going against your own party, that thinks ownership is the only way to participate.

BATES: Being part of the so-called ownership society, a society that claims homes, schools and other accouterments of middle-class values, was an important component in the last two Republican victories. The party appealed to voters across geographic and ethnic lines to join them and many black fiscal conservatives did. So did many black religious conservatives, who appreciated the Republican stance against gay marriage. But, says University of Maryland political science Professor Ronald Walters, the honeymoon between the Republican Party and these traditionally Democratic black voters may be coming to an end.

Professor RONALD WALTERS (University of Maryland): Now we have with Katrina another extremely powerful emotional issue. And I think in the final analysis, that's going to arm Democrats and black leaders with the ability actually to trump whatever now was resonant in the religious issues.

BATES: And if that swing away from the Republicans occurs, says Walters, it may present possibilities for the Democrats.

Prof. WALTERS: On one side, I think the Democrats have the opportunity to stymie Republican outreach in a lot of places. And here, we're not just talking about blacks, because in a lot of places in the southern region, whites are also looking at the federal response, looking at their damaged property and saying that here was the administration and the president of the party, which left them out to dry as well. So that the enormous implications of this, if the Democrats are able to take advantage of it, really have regional political implications.

BATES: The NAACP's president, Bruce Gordon, applauds Bush's stated good intentions, but, he says, following through on them is going to be a lot harder, especially with a war abroad that's draining America's finances and dividing its citizens. But if there's any silver lining to Katrina's devastation, Gordon says, it's that the storm took the lid off any illusions about America as a completely first-world country.

Mr. BRUCE GORDON (NAACP President): Katrina has made it apparent to a lot of Americans who are offended and embarrassed--I'm not just talking about black Americans, I'm talking about white Americans who don't like what they see. So I believe the timing is everything and I would hate to lose the momentum, the self of conscience that has emerged in this country and sort of return back to business as usual because the budget crisis prevented us from taking on the poverty crisis. So it's a tough one to balance.

BATES: And, says Diane Watson, Katrina's aftermath and the president's acknowledgement of it is a possible opportunity for her party and his.

Rep. WATSON: I think it's our opportunity to perform and it's their opportunity to put efforts behind their words.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

CHADWICK: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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