In the combination of New Orleans and hurricanes, we have the most powerful argument possible for the necessity of “change.” It’s all there: gaping inequality, deep racism, crumbling public infrastructure, global warming, rampant corruption, the Blackwater-ization of the public sector. And none of it is in the past tense. In New Orleans whole neighborhoods have gone to seed, Charity Hospital remains shuttered, public housing has been deliberately destroyed—and the levee system is still far from repaired.
Gustav should have been political rat poison for the Republicans, no matter how well it was managed. Yet, as Peter Baker noted in the New York Times, “rather than run away from the hurricane and its political risks, Mr. McCain ran toward it.” If this strategy worked, it was at least partly because Barack Obama has been running away from New Orleans for his entire campaign.
Unlike John Edwards, who started and ended his nomination bid surrounded by the decay of New Orleans’s Ninth Ward, Obama has shied away from the powerful symbolism the city offers. He waited almost a year after Hurricane Katrina to visit New Orleans and spent just half a day there ahead of the Louisiana primary. During the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden made no mention of New Orleans in their keynotes. Bill Clinton spared just two words: “Katrina and cronyism.”
In his Denver speech, Obama did invoke a government “that sits on its hands while a major American city drowns before our eyes.” But that only scratches the surface of what happened to New Orleans’s poorest residents, who were first forcibly relocated and then forced to watch from afar as their homes, schools and hospitals were stolen. As Obama spoke in Denver, families in New Orleans were already packing their bags in anticipation of Gustav, steeling themselves for yet another evacuation. They heard not even a perfunctory “our thoughts and prayers are with you” from the Democratic candidate for President.
There are plenty of political reasons for this, of course. Obama’s campaign is pitching itself to the middle class, not the class of discarded people New Orleans represents. The problem is that by remaining virtually silent about the most dramatic domestic outrage in modern US history, Obama created a political vacuum. When Gustav hit, all McCain needed to do to fill it was show up. Sure, it was cynical for McCain to claim the hurricane zone as a campaign backdrop. But it was Obama who left that potent terrain as vacant as a lot in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Until now, Obama’s supporters have largely accepted the campaign’s assessment of the compromises necessary to win, offering only gentle prodding. The fact that the Republicans have managed to turn New Orleans to their advantage should put a decisive end to this blind obedience.
Republicans have a better attitude toward their candidate. When they don’t like McCain’s positions, they simply change them. Take the hottest-button issue of the campaign: offshore oil drilling. Just four months ago, it was not even on the radar. During the Republican primary, the issue barely came up, and when it did, McCain did not support it. None of this bothered former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his newly minted American Solutions for Winning the Future. Gingrich waited patiently for what his party loves most: a crisis. It arrived in May, when oil approached $130 a barrel. First came a petition to lower gas prices by opening up domestic drilling (nonsense). Next was a poll, packed with laughably leading questions: “Some people have suggested that, to combat the rising cost of energy and reduce dependence on foreign energy sources, the United States should use more of its own domestic energy reserves, including the oil and coal it already has here in the United States. Do you support or oppose this idea?” You can guess what people said. Two weeks later, McCain flipped on offshore oil drilling.
There was always a risk attached to making offshore drilling the centerpiece of the McCain campaign, since it is not nearly as safe as its advocates claim. Environmentalists have been trying to point this out, but nothing makes the case quite as forcefully as a Category 5 hurricane rocking oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, forcing evacuations and raising the specter of a serious spill.
Gustav was one of those rare moments when political arguments are made by reality, not rhetoric. It was the time to simply point and say: “This is why we oppose more drilling.” It was also the time to recall that during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the official Minerals Management Service report found more than 100 accidents leading to a total of 743,400 gallons of oil spilled throughout the region. To put that figure in perspective, 100,000 gallons is classified as a “major spill.” If one is feeling particularly bold, a Category 5 hurricane is also an opportune time to mention that scientists see a link between heavier storms and warming ocean temperatures—warmed in part by the fossil fuels being extracted from those fallible platforms.
Obama was not able to make these kinds of arguments when Gustav hit. That’s because his campaign had made another “strategic” decision: to compromise on offshore oil drilling. Again a vacuum that had been opened up was rapidly filled by the Republicans, who instantly (and absurdly) linked the hurricane to the need for “energy security.” The morning after Gustav made landfall, Bush called for more drilling. Earlier, McCain had visited the hurricane zone with his new running mate, Sarah Palin, whose sole prior claim to national fame was telling cable shows that “we need to drill, drill, drill.”
In moments of crisis, it is possible to speak hard truths with great force and clarity. But when the truth has gone silent, lies, boldly told, work almost as well.
*This column was first published in The Nation.