Hurricane Katrina's Political Fallout

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NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams and Ron Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, discuss the political implications of the population decline in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Before Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans, the city was an anchor of the state's black Democratic voting bloc, but now with much of its voting base scattered across the country, no one knows what the new New Orleans will look like politically nor do we know what the political implications are for those states that have seen a influx of evacuees. Joining me now to talk about the possible changes in Louisiana's political landscape are NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams--he joins us from Washington, DC--and Ron Walters, director of The African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland.

Gentlemen, thanks for joining us. Appreciate it.

Professor RON WALTERS (Director, The African-American Leadership Institute): Good to...

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good to be with you, Ed.

GORDON: Juan, let me start with you and ask you first before we get to the landscape of that region, the political implications for this president and his administration: Do we know, can we start to map out the toll Hurricane Katrina is going to take on the Bush administration?

WILLIAMS: I think it's pretty clear right now, Ed, that what has happened is that the president has lost a lot of his Republican moderate support. That's why his numbers are down to about 40 percent in terms of approval rating. He was already having trouble with the Iraq War and support for the war. What has happened with Katrina has worsened that situation for him, exacerbated it to the point where now I believe it's 55 percent in the latest polls of Americans believe that there should be an immediate pullout of troops. It was trending towards that direction before. It has been exacerbated by the sense that there's a lack of leadership, a lack of competency in the Bush administration over their handling of Hurricane Katrina.

GORDON: Ron Walters, will there be those who see this and try to connect it to this administration's direction of Iraq and our involvement with the war, the quote, "ineptness," the lack of leadership, etc.?

Prof. WALTERS: Yes, I think leadership certainly is at the heart of a lot of the evaluation people will make because there's the widespread feeling that Iraq was not the kind of situation Americans could have gone into if they'd had proper intelligence but also proper leadership that led them into it. Now this is the second shoe to drop, which is the failed response of the administration to this hurricane disaster. So I think Juan is right. This is what has pulled the president's numbers down into the 40 percent range and his negatives, 58 percent, which is the highest of his administration.

GORDON: What of the idea of the implications politically to the region? We are seeing an influx of evacuees go to neighboring states. Texas has received a lot of them. Others will suggest that even with this influx you're not going to see Texas all of a sudden become a solidly blue state, but, Juan, what does this do for Texas and those states, Louisiana and Mississippi to a lesser degree, that will lose clearly some blacks from their voting rolls?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think we should start with the idea that you're dealing with a very poor population overwhelmingly that's expected not to go back. So the question is whether or not those folks will vote and whether they have voted in the past. What we know from the statistics, Ed, is that Louisiana's a state where about 30 percent--I think it's 29 exactly--but about 30 percent of the voters were black and most of them concentrated in that New Orleans area, a city where about 60 percent of the registered voters were African-Americans. That has made a tremendous difference. Mary Landrieu, the Democratic senator, for example, from Louisiana won her last campaign by just 42,000 votes. So if you take, let's say, 40, 50,000 black people, which is what is thought, out of the city of New Orleans, you're literally taking away her margin of victory.

GORDON: Ron, Juan brings up an interesting point, and that is that historically we have seen the least among us not turn to politics as a way out. They don't always necessarily participate by voting, but can this be a catalyst to say to many of these displaced people, `Now you see the importance of getting, quote, "the right folks in office,"' or will they say that the ineptness that they saw from the feds down to local government proves their point that `It doesn't matter who's in there for us, no one is going to look our way'?

Prof. WALTERS: Well, I think that in the Southern region, you've had blacks turn out really at a higher level than blacks in the North, so that I think they have pretty much gotten that idea that it is a good thing to turn out. As a matter of fact, nationally, black turnout figures are pretty much equal those of whites in the last two election cycles. So black turnout is up. The problem here is with respect to that region. I think...

GORDON: Is that true, Ron, among the poor black...

Prof. WALTERS: No.

GORDON: ...electorate?

WILLIAMS: No. Voting is a middle-class preoccupation, but black voters vote disproportionately higher than white voters. And so even with respect to low-income voters, blacks are turning out. The question here is that the president has really responded to this area essentially because his base really is threatened, and we're talking about a lot of white voters--a lot of them vote Republican--that really are angry at the nature of the federal response. These people have lost not only homes but businesses, lots of property in the Gulf region, and so I think the response here, the reason why the president has gone back down today, continues to go back down there, is that he's trying to make sure that the Republican base doesn't slip in these critical Southern states, because in the next election, the Democrats have given some indication that they're going to try for the first time in a long time to compete in the South.

GORDON: Juan, we saw no one wanting to make this, justifiably so, a political issue in the early days of Katrina, but we also knew that, in fact, it would become that. We're starting to see that now. It seems to me--and we've talked about this on this program ad nauseam, to some degree--that Democrats over the last few years have been stumbling, unable to find real political footing, if you will. Can they use this as the ability to shore their ground up? Will they be able to do that? Or will Republicans be able to point to, for instance, Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco in Louisiana as a part of the issue, part of the problem, and this will be a shared faux pas, if you will?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think there's no doubt about it, Ed: Already that's exactly the strategy the White House has adopted, to say this isn't just the federal government's responsibility, not just the president's fault. Look at the fact that you have a Democratic and black mayor, Ray Nagin, and then a Democratic white governor in Louisiana in Kathleen Blanco. Neither of them on the local level as Democrats has emerged as a Rudy Giuliani-type figure, you know, the way Giuliani came out as, you know, sort of a strong leadership type out of 9/11 in New York City. What you have here instead is Blanco having some trouble with regard to how she negotiates her relationship with the federal government, especially with regard to the National Guard.

And then secondly, Nagin--I think, you know, Nagin hurt himself when he decided to move his family to Dallas. Obviously, he has to, you know, be concerned about the education of his children. He wanted them in a good school system, but I think if he had moved somewhere else in the state, it might have been more understandable to the voters in New Orleans and to people throughout that Louisiana region. And then to see where he, you know, has to go back and forth in terms of evacuation orders or ordering people back in the city, again it's kind of faulty leadership.

So I think that the White House and the Republicans are able to point and say, `Hey, look, the Democrats didn't handle this any better,' although there is the overwhelming perception, especially among those who've evacuated and especially among African-Americans, that the responsibility lays with the federal government, that the federal government had the resources to handle this and definitely did not.

GORDON: What does this do, Ron, for people like William Jefferson, who is a congressman representing New Orleans, a black congressman? How vulnerable does he become now? Republicans had been looking at him anyway.

Prof. WALTERS: Yes, it looks as though that he's very vulnerable in this, primarily because he's been the subject very recently of some FBI investigations over some of his business relationships and criticized by the media for his own sort of taking National Guards into the area in order to help him clear out his home and his personal belongings. So he may suffer a big hit, in addition to what Juan said earlier about the number of people who are leaving. A lot of those people, I would say disproportionately, who have been disrupted and displaced come from districts like Jefferson's. So the question is: You know, how many of those people actually are going to back? What's the shape of his district going to look like when election time rolls around? And we're just about to hit the midterm elections for 2006. So it's going to be very interesting to see how the 2006 elections are not only handled, but counted, with the population dispersed all over the country.

GORDON: It's also going to be interesting, Juan, to look at how the 2006 elections will play out in the sense that the president now is shaping all of this for his legacy while his cohorts on the Republican side are shaping this for re-election. There has to be concern on their parts in terms of moneys being poured in and how that will affect the economy, inflation, etc.

WILLIAMS: You're not kidding, Ed. I mean, the big argument really taking place here in Washington is among Republicans. The Democrats are glad to spend the money and are glad also to point out, you know, the ineptitude on the part of the president and his administration, but it's among Republicans that there's a tremendous concern about what they would view as reckless spending--you know, just throwing the money at the problem--when you already have a large deficit in place. This is not in keeping with conservative American politics. So the fear is that this is all about the president trying to repair the damage to his reputation and his legacy, as opposed to tending to, one, conservative principle or, two, to the interest of people who have to get elected in 2008 and a potential GOP nominee in 2008--I'm sorry. You know, get re-elected in 2006 and a potential for a presidential Republican nominee in 2008. So you have a lot of that concern.

The other point to make very quickly is you have the president's agenda here, the ownership society, the vouchers for schools, the whole idea of additional tax cuts and not doing away with the tax cuts that he had planned but, in fact, even going to the point of putting, you know, exemptions for Davis-Bacon in place so that you can have lower wages, not the prevailing wage paid to workers involved with the reconstruction effort. All of this is the part of the president and the Republican agenda.

GORDON: Ron, real quick, with about 30 seconds. Does anyone come out a political winner out of this?

Prof. WALTERS: No. I think--I had a class yesterday and I talked to my students about federalism, and they all laughed because when you look at all levels of government, there's enough blame to go around. And certainly I think Ray Nagin has become sort of the lightning rod of the attempts of the Republicans sort of to put this on him, but the real picture really here is that this is a federal responsibility and I think most Americans...

GORDON: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: ...from the latest poll that we've seen understand that.

GORDON: All right. From Washington, senior NPR correspondent Juan Williams and Ron Walters, director of The African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland.

Thank you both for joining us. Appreciate it.

WILLIAMS: Always good, Ed.

Prof. WALTERS: Thank you.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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