Getting Spanked on Katrina: Heck of a Job, Harry!

This weekend, my friend Harry Shearer took me and my Left, Right, and Center cohorts to the cyber woodshed for not giving the proper attention (alright, any attention) to the remarkable Army Corps of Engineers report accepting responsibility for the flooding of New Orleans. Here was the money spank: "It was astonishing to listen to these four natter on about the Treasury Secretary, while culpability for the worst man-made engineering disaster in the nation's history was ignored."

Ouch. And touché. While part of me wants to explain that I had ceded the HuffPost Katrina beat to Harry, who has done a remarkable job of keeping us informed on all the developments from New Orleans, the truth is, he's right. We cannot let Katrina and the sputtering efforts to rebuild the Gulf be shoved to the back of the priority line.

Harry's jab got me to thinking about why this has happened. Why, despite the occasional big story hitting the front page of the New York Times or leading the nightly news, the event John Zogby predicts will become more of a defining moment for America's future than 9/11, has been largely forgotten by the public -- and, even more critically, by our leaders.

Now, I understand why the GOP has been only too happy to sweep it under the rug. The last things they want voters reminded of are Bush playing that guitar while New Orleans drowned, his presidential flyover, his promise to rebuild Trent Lott's house, and the glaring chasm between his post-Katrina rhetoric -- "We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives" -- and the stark current reality. Over nine months later, 250,000 are still homeless or displaced, bodies are still being found, tens of thousands of homes still need rebuilding, disaster preparedness for New Orleans has been cut in half, and hurricane recovery funding is still slogging its way through Congress.

But why are Democrats sending mixed messages about Katrina? Yes, the Democratic National Committee held its annual spring meeting in April in New Orleans, saying the devastated city would be a symbolic image for the 2006 campaign. "The Republicans," said Howard Dean, "have cut and run when it comes to rebuilding the Gulf Coast, and we will not do that."

But yesterday, on the floor of the Senate, while denouncing the ludicrousness of the GOP's pandering gay marriage ban, Harry Reid castigated the administration for avoiding the most pressing issues facing Americans: "high gas prices, the war in Iraq, the national debt, health care, senior citizens, education, crime, trade policies, stem cell research." Notice Katrina didn't even make the list. An incontrovertible testament to the incompetence and misplaced priorities of the GOP, yet New Orleans doesn't even beat out stem cell research in Reid's Top Nine concerns?

I couldn't help but wonder if Katrina didn't make the cut because it's not polling very well these days. In a recent Fox News poll [pdf] listing the 20 issues Americans are most concerned about, Katrina landed with a thud at number 18 [pdf]. In the latest CBS poll of the top 8 most important problems facing the country, it didn't even make the list.

Back in September 2005, in the wake of the disaster, Americans deemed recovery from Hurricane Katrina the highest priority facing the White House and Congress in an AP poll.

It was also front and center on Reid's agenda, as he delivered the opening remarks at a Democratic forum on "Meeting America's Economic Challenge in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina," saying: "Our first priority is making sure victims receive the assistance they need. This includes housing, health care and financial relief. We've done some work, but not nearly enough. America can do better."

I did note that Reid managed to work the Dems abysmal slogan into both speeches, ending yesterday's Senate speech with: "Together, America Can Do Better."

So can the Democrats. Eight years ago, Harry Shearer and I started the Partnership for a Poll-Free America to free our leaders from sticking their fingers in the political wind, feeling which way it's blowing, and then chasing after the fickle gusts of public sentiment. Real leadership has always been about determining the direction the country needs to go in and convincing the public that it's the right direction.

As I blogged yesterday, Democrats need to make the tragic war in Iraq and how it's made America less safe the top issue in the 2006 election. And Katrina should be the domestic companion piece. As I wrote on Sept 7, 2005: "The debacle in New Orleans contains all the elements necessary to show how Bush's misguided priorities -- especially his obsession with Iraq -- have left us far more vulnerable, unsafe, and insecure. It's the perfect opportunity to redefine national security in a way that would ironically -- by putting America first -- most appeal to the red states."

Thanks for the reminder, Harry.