JUDY WOODRUFF: We all recall that, three years ago, President Bush and the Republican Party were widely blamed for the slow response to and lack of preparation for Hurricane Katrina.
Here to discuss how that storm affected both parties’ political fortunes is Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press; and Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal’s political daily.
Andy, to you first. Refresh our memories. What was Katrina’s effect on President Bush and the Republican Party?
ANDREW KOHUT, President, Pew Research Center: Well, not only did Katrina devastate New Orleans; it devastated President Bush, with virtually the whole country watching, because Katrina was followed as much as any event, save 9/11.
You had 67 percent of the people saying that President Bush didn’t do enough to deal with the people who were suffering down there. His approval ratings went down 4 points.
But more importantly, his image as a competent president — as an incompetent president began to be reinforced and intensified. We saw 69 percent in a poll that we conducted two weeks later saying they want a president — the next president to be different than President Bush.
And people were saying this is a president, in great numbers, 41 percent, who’s not going to be successful in this second term. And the Republican Party as a consequence took a big hit.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And that was a reaction almost immediately.
Amy, what would you add to that? And what was the effect on the Democrats?
AMY WALTER, Editor-in-Chief, The Hotline: Well, I do agree exactly with what Andy is saying. And it did take a big toll on Republicans. I think, certainly in 2006, that was some of the aftereffects of the 2005 storm, because there was a sense among voters that, regardless of how they felt about Republicans maybe on some of the issues, they thought of them as a party that was competent, could get things done.
When that competency issue failed, there wasn’t much left for them. And that was on top of — right, so you had Katrina, and then you went to other scandals that involved Republicans.
For Democrats, I think the pressure now is on them, actually, to live up to this idea about being a more competent party, in terms of getting things done.
So if, indeed, we see Democrats in control of the House and the Senate, if there’s a Democrat in the White House, I think there is a lot of pressure on Democrats to actually show that we can get things done and we’re going to do it well.
Showing a new level of concern
JUDY WOODRUFF: Were there clear lessons coming out of that? I mean, the obvious one, be on top of it, don't let something like this happen, and look like you weren't ready. What were the lessons?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, the other clear lesson is, appear to be really concerned and not indifferent. There was a sense -- the public came away with a sense of indifference, that, you know, the president didn't try hard enough. That's what we found.
And, certainly, John McCain and the Republicans with Gustav are making sure that the American public realizes that they recognize what's going on and that there's a lot at stake for the people in harm's way.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it -- Amy, as I started to say it's as simple as that, but is it as simple as showing that you care, that you're concerned, that you're focused on the problem?
AMY WALTER: Absolutely. I mean, there was a tone-deafness there that was pretty apparent. And I think what you're seeing this week here, at least in these last few hours, what you're seeing from the Obama campaign, as well, is a sense that, "We can never be caught off-guard like that again, looking like we don't understand the concerns of average Americans."
What's interesting in the polling, especially that you're seeing recently, both McCain and Obama are seen by voters as being basically in touch with voters' everyday concerns. And I think, when you lose that in the minds of voters, it's very hard to get that back.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Andy, is there more riding now on John McCain and the Republicans because of what happened with President Bush and Katrina? Or is it about equal?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I think what John McCain has to say is, "I'm quite different than President Bush." And he's half the way in making that case.
The independent voters, who are going to be as decisive as anyone in this election, can't quite make up their mind whether he is different than President Bush. And this is one of their principal bases by which they're going to make such judgments.
Is he a good manager? Does he care about people? Because that's the concern and the criticisms that they have of President Bush.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You're making a distinction between the independents and the...
ANDREW KOHUT: The Republicans and the Democrats have made -- they've largely made their choices.
McCain takes relief spotlight
JUDY WOODRUFF: And what would you add to that, Amy?
AMY WALTER: I would agree to that and also say that the difficult part, of course, if you're John McCain is he is not the president. George Bush is the president.
And any time a crisis like this happens, the focus obviously then goes back on to President Bush, goes on to FEMA. It gets the attention off of John McCain or, more importantly, puts the focus on a president who is unpopular. And that's any time the focus is on the president, it's not particularly good for John McCain.
JUDY WOODRUFF: It's also been pointed out that there is, in a way, a silver lining, if -- in the midst of this, you know, terrible storm that we're watching, and everyone's worried about the human toll, but an opportunity for John McCain to show a side of himself.
AMY WALTER: Right, to show that, again, he has an understanding of the importance of issues like this, he's not going to get caught flat-footed, he's the kind of decisive leader that can be both compassionate and to get things done.
But again, I think, if the focus is on the president, it's still hard for him to always be able to make that break. But I think, you know, what he's been able to do on this one day, not in a normal day, is actually get in the spotlight when it would have been other folks.
ANDREW KOHUT: And, crassly, an opportunity to not have President Bush here. It's not a bad thing politically for John McCain to not have President Bush and Vice President Cheney here.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And I've even heard the comment today that when John McCain made a point of saying, "We're taking off our Republican hats and putting on our American hats," that was also seen as potentially a positive.
ANDREW KOHUT: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Andy Kohut, Amy Walter, thank you both.
AMY WALTER: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim, back to you.