The politics of Hurricane Katrina was playing out long before the pumps started draining New Orleans, with Democrats seeing an opening to attack the president and a longtime friend of the Bush family convinced that all Republicans are now in big trouble.
Republican political consultant Michael Edelman, who has known the Bush family for decades, said the perception that the federal government failed miserably to react quickly enough to the crisis puts the Republican control of Congress at risk next year.
“The Democrats have an issue in this hurricane,” Mr. Edelman said. “They were given it and they are going to run it up the flagpole. If the Republicans in Congress are not careful, they are going to lose the midterm elections. They know it, too. They can smell it.”
Millions watched the images on television of stranded New Orleans residents, sitting for days at the Superdome, on rooftops and on highway overpasses in the stifling sun with little or no food and water. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has come under heavy criticism for allowing that to happen, though a lack of coordination at the state and local government levels also contributed to the crisis.
But the Democratic leadership in Congress has put the majority of blame on the Bush administration, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California calling the president “oblivious” to the suffering and confusion in New Orleans.
FEMA Director Michael D. Brown was removed from his post leading the recovery effort in the Gulf on Friday, but Democrats immediately insisted it was not enough and demanded that he be fired.
Ron Bonjean, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, said he is disappointed with the harsh tone of the Democratic rhetoric.
“Congress has reacted to Hurricane Katrina by trying to lead the country in a bipartisan way to help the hurricane victims,” Mr. Bonjean said. “We’ve been on the ball funding the effort and providing the help to get people back on their feet.”
He said the congressional Republican leadership “reached out” to Democrats to solve the crisis on the ground and form a bipartisan committee to study the failures in the government’s response. Mrs. Pelosi, however, said her party would not participate in the commission.
Mr. Edelman said the Democratic message of incompetence in the Bush administration during this disaster resonates with the public, and it is impossible for the Democrats — who have tried in vain to hurt Mr. Bush politically on issue after issue — to overplay their hand.
“I don’t think you can overplay a hand like this,” he said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime hand. The ramifications of incompetence in FEMA for national security purposes are astounding. Someone is supposed to keep us safe. That’s what we pay taxes for.”
A senior Republican congressional aide said, “It really boggles the mind that the Democrats are choosing this strategy.
“They are trying to get the Republicans to take the bait and point fingers so they can grab our arm, pull it down into the fire and take control of Congress. We’re not even thinking about engaging in their strategy.”
But the volatile political situation has the potential to hurt Republicans, the aide said, if the party’s leaders lose emotional control.
“The next two weeks will be critical for Republicans to keep leading in a bipartisan way,” he said. “It will cement in people’s minds and stand in contrast to the way Democrats are acting. And that will be ultimately reflected in public opinion.”
Dick Morris, who served as senior political adviser to President Clinton, said it is too early to jump to conclusions about the disaster’s political impact.
“Remember how flawed Bush’s response after 9/11 seemed and how positive it ultimately was,” Mr. Morris said. “This crisis will increasingly redound to Bush’s benefit and Katrina will prove as defining a moment in his second term as 9/11 was in his first. He will increasingly shine as aid arrives and a national surge of compassion for the victims and pride in the relief and recovery and rebuilding sweeps the nation.”