Sunday, August 31, 2008

Raining on their Parade

History is full of examples of events intruding on the best laid political plans. Abraham Lincoln's reelection was doubtful until General Sherman captured Atlanta in September, 1864. Jimmy Carter's reelection crashed with the helicopters that were dispatched to rescue the U.S. citizens held hostage in Iran. The fortunes of George W. Bush foundered in the rising waters that Hurricane Katrina brought to New Orleans in 2005.
Now, as the New York Times reports, the Republican Party is being forced to cut back sharply on its convention schedule this week due to the impending landfall of Hurricane Gustav:
Senator John McCain called a halt on Sunday afternoon to all but the most essential activities for the Republican National Convention on Monday, declaring that it was time for members of his party to “take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats” as Hurricane Gustav bears down on the Gulf Coast.
It may be the right tone for McCain to take, but unfortunately conventions are the time when candidates most need to wear their party hats. Of course, it may not hurt the party that Bush and Cheney won't be speaking tomorrow night. But the need to curtail most of the usual speeches over the next four nights, along with a daily reminder of the botched response to Katrina, will sharply limit the GOP's opportunity to make up the 8-point bounce from last week's Democratic convention, a job that was already made more difficult by the mixed response to McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Speakers at the Republican convention will feel obligated to soften the partisan rhetoric, and will not be able to make up for the missed opportunity, even if the GOP hadn't expected to match the 38 million viewers that tuned in to Barack Obama's acceptance speech.
McCain will be doing the right thing politically by trying to appear presidential to the 2 million refugees, but then Obama will do the same. This task is more difficult for McCain without drawing a direct contrast with the failures of 2005. To the extent that photos of Bush presenting McCain with a birthday cake three years ago are recycled, this job becomes even more difficult.
Is it fair that the Republicans won't be able to make full use of their convention to counter the Democrat's success of last week? Of course not. But presidents--and presidential candidates--are buffeted by events, and can expect to be judged by how they deal with the unexpected. That's their job. If it were easy, anyone could do it.


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