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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Democrats Step Up Criticism of White House Response - New York Times

Democrats Step Up Criticism of White House Response - New York TimesSeptember 8, 2005
Democrats Step Up Criticism of White House Response
By ADAM NAGOURNEY and CARL HULSE

WASHINGTON, Sept. 7 - After 10 days of often uncertain responses to the Bush administration's management of Hurricane Katrina, Democratic leaders unleashed a burst of attacks on the White House on Wednesday, saying the wreckage in New Orleans raised doubts about the country's readiness to endure a terrorist attack and exposed ominous economic rifts that they said had worsened under five years of Republican rule.

From Democratic leaders on the floor of Congress, to a speech by the Democratic National Committee chairman at a meeting of the National Baptist Convention in Miami, to four morning television interviews by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrats offered what was shaping up as the most concerted attack that they had mounted on the White House in the five years of the Bush presidency.

"Oblivious. In denial. Dangerous," Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California and the House minority leader, said of President Bush as she stood in front of a battery of uniformed police officers and firefighters in a Capitol Hill ceremony that had originally been scheduled to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Americans should now harbor no illusions about the government's ability to respond effectively to disasters," she said. "Our vulnerabilities were laid bare."

Former Senator John Edwards, a likely candidate for president in 2008 and the Democratic Party's vice-presidential nominee in 2004, argued that the breakdown in New Orleans illustrated the central theme of his national campaigns: the nation has been severed into two Americas.

"The truth is the people who suffer the most from Katrina are the very people who suffer the most every day," Mr. Edwards said in a speech in North Carolina on Wednesday, according to a transcript provided by his office.

And Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, said in an interview: "It's a summary of all that this administration is not in touch with and has faked and ducked and bobbed over the past four years. What you see here is a harvest of four years of complete avoidance of real problem solving and real governance in favor of spin and ideology."

The display of unity was striking for a party that has been adrift since Mr. Kerry's defeat, struggling to reach consensus on issues like the war in Iraq and the Supreme Court nomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. The aggressiveness was evidence of what Republicans and Democrats said was the critical difference between the hurricane and the Sept. 11 attacks: Democrats appear able to question the administration's competence without opening themselves to attacks on their patriotism.

Not insignificantly, they have been emboldened by the fact that Republicans have also been critical of the White House over the past week, and by the perception that this normally politically astute and lethal administration has been weakened and seems at a loss as it struggles to manage two crises: the aftermath of the hurricane on the Gulf Coast and the political difficulties that it has created for Mr. Bush in Washington.

Their response may have allowed the Democrats to seize the issue that Republicans had hammered them with in the past two elections: national security. "Our government failed at one of the most basic functions it has - providing for the physical safety of our citizens," Senator Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat who is considering a run for president in 2008, declared in a speech on the Senate floor.

The Democrats' aggressiveness is not without its risks. The White House has been seeking to minimize the criticisms of Mr. Bush by portraying them as partisan, and some prominent Democrats had earlier avoided going after Mr. Bush on this issue, aware of what the Republicans were trying to accomplish.

At a contentious press briefing on Wednesday, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, used the phrase "blame game" eight separate times as he tried to push back on criticism of the White House effort.

Representative J. Dennis Hastert, the House speaker, struck a similar theme, saying: "Some people are really very anxious to start pointing fingers and playing the blame game. I think we need to get our work done."

Mr. McClellan did not respond to e-mails seeking a response to the Democratic criticisms. But in a sign of the White House effort to move the dispute out of the Oval Office and try to cast the argument in partisan terms, the Republican National Committee chairman, Ken Mehlman, issued a statement assailing Democrats like Ms. Pelosi for "pointing fingers in a shameless effort to tear us apart."

Mrs. Clinton, in back-to-back television interviews Wednesday morning, angrily dismissed those kinds of attacks as a diversion from legitimate attempts by critics to point up shortcomings.

"That's what they always do; I've been living with that kind of rhetoric for the last four and a half years," Mrs. Clinton, Democrat of New York, said on the "Today" show. "It's time to end it. It's time to actually show this government can be competent."

The Democratic reaction took many forms, from urging campaign contributors to give money to hurricane victims, to proposing legislation to provide aid to stricken areas, as Mr. Kerry did, to criticizing the Bush administration for cuts it had made to the budget of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as Mrs. Clinton did. In one less-noted gesture, Al Gore, the former vice president, chartered a private jet and flew doctors to storm-stricken areas.

The Democratic National Committee chairman, Howard Dean, said this could be a transitional moment for his party. "The Democratic Party needs a new direction," he said. "And I think it's become clear what the direction is: restore a moral purpose to America. Rebuild America's psyche."

"This is deeply disturbing to a lot of Americans, because it's more than thousands of people who get killed; it's about the destruction of the American community," Mr. Dean said. "The idea that somehow government didn't care until it had to for political reasons. It's appalling."

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, said: "The powerful winds of this storm have torn away that mask that has hidden from our debates the many Americans who are left out and left behind."

For all the turmoil, Republican House leaders said Wednesday that they were confident it would not translate into a shift in power - if only, they argued, because there are not enough truly competitive seats next year to provide an opportunity for Democrats.

"Democrats throw stuff at the wall almost every week looking for something to stick," said Representative Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "This is something they have now chosen to politicize during a national disaster, versus let's get people taken care of and then move on to what we have learned from it."

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