When Hurricane Katrina came ashore three years ago, initial reports suggested that it had made its way past New Orleans without causing the destruction some had feared. But the storm’s aftermath proved unexpectedly catastrophic, with levees unable to hold back the rising waters.
It’s worth keeping that example in mind this afternoon, with Hurricane
Gustav, downgraded from a Category 3 storm (Katrina’s designation) to Category 2 before it came ashore, passing west of New Orleans. It seems possible that the dire forecasts of the weekend – talk of flooding of “biblical” proportions that would wipe out whatever Katrina hadn’t – will not be realized. But it’s also possible that some of the levee walls in New Orleans, which have not been fully reconstitutedn since 2005, will once again give way, with horrific flooding resulting.
Obviously, everyone is hoping and praying that the former scenario plays out. But strictly from a political standpoint, John McCain’s campaign has extra reason to hope so. If the storm passes and the walls hold, then McCain and the G.O.P. will probably be able to salvage two days – Wednesday and Thursday – of their convention.
(There’s even a chance, depending on how the storm progresses today, that they could end up with presenting a primetime program on Tuesday night as well.)
For McCain, this would probably be the best possible scenario. In canceling the first day of the convention, he has won terrific press coverage, with television news stations playing – over and over again – clips of McCain solemnly talking about the need to be an American first and a Republican second. In so doing, he has come across as admirably nonpolitical – which is itself a brilliant political achievement.
Meanwhile, where has Barack Obama been? Since McCain announced his surprise selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate last Friday,
the Illinois senator has largely disappeared from press coverage. Plus, the cancellation of today’s events gave McCain and excuse to keep George W. Bush and Dick Cheney away from St. Paul. Surely, McCain was never thrilled with the idea of two men whose combined approval rating sits at around 50 percent headlining the first night of his convention, but given their status, he could hardly snub them. Now that’s not an issue. McCain can now stay clear of Bush and Cheney all the way through Election Day, if he wants.
If the storm passes without causing high casualties and heavy destruction, McCain will be able to present a truncated convention headlined only by speakers he’s comfortable showcasing. If the “normal” convention is condensed to just Wednesday and Thursday, there won’t be time for much more than acceptance speeches by McCain and Palin and one or two other high-profile addresses, maybe from Joe Lieberman or Rudy Giuliani. In essence, the G.O.P. will still be able to unleash harsh attacks on Obama, and McCain and Palin will still get
to deliver primetime acceptance speeches. The only difference between this and a normal convention would be that the first two days wouldn’t be dominated by speeches, but rather by McCain’s decision to cancel the festivities.
Also, if the storm passes without major damage, the last two days of the convention – and McCain’s speech itself – would probably take on a triumphant tone. As unfair as this may seem (given the Bush White House’s dreadful response to Katrina), the convention would turn into a celebration of the federal government’s response, of the lives saved and the destruction diverted, and of the (supposedly) wise and heroic leadership shown by McCain in making sure his party was focused on the impending natural disaster in the Gulf Coast, and not partisan politics in St. Paul.