Saturday, August 14, 2004

Let the pandering begin
Conventional wisdom has it that the military and members of military families are a safe constituency for the Republican Party. It’s normal political behavior to take care of your core constituencies. For that reason, I’ve been a little puzzled at the shabby way the administration has treated current and former military members for the last three years. The list of military grievances against this administration should be familiar to most of us: cutting or attempting to cut funds for veterans’ hospitals, dependant education, raises, combat pay, and death benefits; extending tours of duty; and stop loss orders.

Last winter I began waiting for the big pandering. That is, I expected Bush to announce some ridiculously expensive initiative to give endless goodies to military families. I didn’t expect him to deliver on the promise; with most of these Rovian initiatives it’s the announcement dog and pony show that most matters. I’m still waiting.

This week presented Bush with a new chance for pandering and, as an added bonus, he gets to show up his father. Hurricane Charlie.

Most experts who post-mortemed the 1992 election felt that the first President Bush’s slow and awkward response to Hurricane Andrew and his failure to visit the damaged area quickly enough were a major blow to his reelection effort. The current President Bush cannot win the White House without Florida. For the past few weeks, Kerry has not only polled ahead of Bush in Florida, he has been widening his lead. Nothing the president or Brother/Governor Jeb Bush has tried has been able to pull Florida back into their column. For the Bush clan Hurricane Charlie is a golden opportunity.

Bush and his handlers are perfectly aware of these facts and are not going to make the same mistakes. Jeb Bush has already visited the area. The president has already declared a large chunk of Florida a federal disaster area and is on his way to survey the damage.

Hurricane Charlie is a free political opportunity for Bush. He has an almost empty stage on which to appear decisive and generous to the people of Florida. Unless he does something completely stupid, Kerry will be unable to criticize him. Any criticism would be quickly spun as begrudging the people of Florida their desperately needed aid.

How unfair is it to expect Bush to politicize this? After all, wouldn’t any president rush to the aid of Florida? Helping Florida and politicizing that help are two different things. We have an elaborate mechanism primed for natural disaster relief; all the president has to do is sign the papers to send it into action. Any president would do that. Politicizing it comes in the form of thrusting his face in front of the cameras and in the form of aid above and beyond the normal limits of disaster relief. When his father recovered from his initial inaction, he announced that Homestead Air Force Base, totally destroyed by Andrew, would be completely rebuilt. Homestead was an obsolete base and already on many short lists for the next round of base closures. Bush’s promise amounted a bold promise of excessive pork for southern Florida.

Ask yourself this, if Charlie had passed through the center of Puerto Rico, an American territory that does not vote in presidential elections, how far above and beyond the normal requirements of disaster relief would Bush go?

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