He's there. So what's the problem?

Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

How Louisiana's Flood Left Republicans at a Loss

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The Republicans won't stop harping about President Barack Obama's handling of the Louisiana floods. Their media focus until this week was to talk exclusively about whether he would break into his August vacation and tour the damage. When he got there, of course, it was (for them) too little, too late. 

What has been noteworthy about this coverage is that it has criticized Obama without actually specifying anything – other than stagecraft – that the administration got wrong. 

This doesn't mean there might not be something to criticize. But doing so would require that the opposition party understood, and cared about, how government was supposed to work.

Those Republicans in a position to make smart criticisms don’t even seem to acknowledge that there’s more to "presidenting" than photo-ops. This means the pressure for the government to do a good job isn’t nearly as strong as it should be.

The New Republic's Brian Beutler makes a good point about the Republican efforts to turn the events into "Obama's Katrina" -- The Thing that will finally drag the president down, just as George W. Bush was (sort of) dragged down by Katrina in 2005.

Beutler describes why Bush was fairly accused of botching the federal response to that disaster. Earlier in his administration, Bush had downgraded the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and then chose someone ill-equipped for the job of leading it.  

Yes, the media and Democrats made much of the stagecraft failures in Bush’s inept personal response to Katrina. But the root of his supposed indifference was the real mismanagement stemming from his fundamental attitude toward governing, and the opposition was able to highlight that. 

Maybe the Republicans will ferret out some real problems in Obama's disaster management. But their response so far fits a larger pattern.

Take their approach to foreign policy. We had years of attacks on “Benghazi” that focused on the nonsense of Sunday-show talking points and fictional stand-down orders but never got around to a serious examination of diplomatic security or Libya policy. We heard plenty about mythical Obama “apology tours,” but little about the real choices the Obama presidency was making. 

Health care is another example. When the Republican Party isn’t willing to stake out a realistic position on how they would "repeal and replace” Obamacare, it becomes dangerous to hold serious congressional hearings on the subject because the results might suggest plausible moderate measures to improve the current system. If Republican politicians advocated such improvements or even admitted that they are possible, they would face revolt from inside their party.

The big picture here is that the political system depends on an incentive structure that rewards politicians for good results and punishes them when things go wrong. This incentive structure is undermined when Republican politicians and Republican-aligned media reflexively attack anything a Democratic president does but don't bother to learn the details to deliver appropriately harsh but meaningful criticism.

For a healthy democracy, the U.S. desperately needs a better Republican Party. 

  1. Bush’s approval ratings were probably hurt by Katrina, but the main issues that destroyed his approval ratings were the war in Iraq and then the 2007-2008 recession. To the extent Katrina hurt, it may have been for what was beyond his control; we know voters tend to turn against the government, for example, when the weather is bad or when local sports teams lose.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net