Facing South

Rove backing away from attacks on Obama's handling of BP disaster?

Facing South
Facing South
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This Sunday, the secretive Republican groups American Crossroads and American Crossroads GPS announced they had raised $32 million in 2010, doubling their fundraising in the last four weeks and putting them on track to hit their goal of a $52 million war chest by Election Day.

What is this shadow wing of the GOP going to do with all this money? This summer, co-founder and former adviser to the first President Bush Karl Rove revealed it would fund "hard-hitting issue advocacy" -- i.e., media attacks -- focusing on alleged "expense account abuses" by Democrats, the "healthcare rip-off," and most interesting of all, making this year's BP oil disaster "Obama's Katrina."

They're making good on at least part of that promise: The TV ads American Crossroads has lofted onto the airwaves in New Hampshire, Colorado, Nevada and other Congressional battlegrounds have gone heavy on the themes of debt, stimulus and "Obamacare."

But notably missing from the bromides from the groups -- whose biggest public donor is Dallas-based oil tycoon Trevor Rees-Jones of Chief Oil & Gas -- are any mentions of Katrina and BP.

Did Rove lose his nerve? It makes sense politically: With the doomed Deepwater Horizon well now ostensibly dead, the BP catastrophe has drifted from headlines. The story just doesn't have the electoral bite it did a couple months ago.

But the entire BP/Katrina comparison was also an uncharacteristic messaging misstep for Rove: By suggesting that Obama's handling of BP was so bad it was on level with Bush's botched response to Katrina, isn't that a tacit admission that his former boss' post-storm efforts in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were a failure?

The decision to even mention Katrina seems a risky one for Republicans. In Courage and Consequences, Rove's memoir published earlier this year, he devotes 17 pages to defending the White House response to Katrina, predictably blaming most problems on the state's Democrats: U.S. Senator Landrieu, Gov. Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin (Republican Sen. Vitter somehow escapes scrutiny).

In fact, the only Katrina "mistakes" Rove admits to are those of image (instructing Bush to survey the devastation from the air, rather than on the ground) and not seizing more federal control -- a strange position for a self-professed small-government conservative.

But Rove also knows that Katrina was a disaster for Republicans and the Bush administration. While the Iraq war became a nagging drag on Bush's poll numbers, it wasn't until the nation viewed the horrifying images of New Orleans residents trapped on their rooftops that the Bush presidency received its knock-out blow.

In the six months after Katrina, Bush's approval ratings fell from 42 percent to 34 percent and never recovered. A big reason was that two-thirds of the country felt Bush wasn't doing enough for Katrina victims.

With big Congressional gains in their sites this November, why would Rove and Republicans want to remind voters of that unhappy time for GOP policies and popularity?

But Rove's BP/Katrina comparison was also failing on a more basic level: it didn't make any sense. Is a disaster that emanates from a corporate, privately-owned oil rig really the same as the governmental response to a natural storm?

Rove was twisting himself into increasingly uncomfortable political pretzels in making his case. For example, in a May 27 editorial in the Wall Street Journal -- titled "Yes, the Gulf spill is Obama's Katrina" -- where he first compared the two Gulf disasters, one of Rove's leading lines of attack is that Obama's "delays" in addressing the BP spill threatened "40% of America's sensitive wetlands."

Rove's new-found concern for Louisiana's rapidly disappearing coast -- about half of which is attributed to oil pipelines and other activities by the very energy interests that fund American Crossroads -- is touching.

Louisiana's coastal communities could have used Rove's passion for wetland protection during the Bush years. In 1998, a diverse team of federal and state officials, as well as scholars and community groups, launched the Coast 2050 plan with 80 proposals for protecting the coast that would cost some $14 billion.

But when officials asked the White House to fund just $50 million of that in 2004, President Bush only included $8 million. Noting the Bush administration's lack of commitment to coastal protection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers devised a significantly smaller $1.9 billion plan, which only passed over a presidential veto.

The Bush administration also fought efforts to use royalties collected from oil and gas companies to help fund wetland restoration efforts included in the 2005 Energy Bill.

Are these really the same "fragile wetlands and marshes" that Rove mourns in his May 2010 attacks on Obama?

And of course Rove doesn't dare mention the National Energy Policy Development Group, a closed-door task force of energy industry representatives created by Bush nine days after taking office and chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney. As The Washington Post reports, this group of Big Energy heavy hitters had a direct influence on rules regulating offshore drilling like BP's Deepwater Horizon:

Executives from BP, Exxon-Mobil, Conoco, Shell and other companies met with the vice president and his team. Jim Ford, then director of the American Petroleum Institute, sent the panel an e-mail on March 20 outlining the industry's legislative and policy wishes. He called for limiting regulations, reducing the backlog of drilling permits, and making it easier for energy companies to access oil and gas leases.

In its report on May 16, the task force said that drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf had an "impressive environmental record" and that state and federal regulations were interfering with exploration and production. The panel urged Bush to direct Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton to "consider economic incentives" for oil and gas firms and reduce the amount of royalties they had to pay.

Soon after, Bush signed two executive orders that tracked many points in Ford's e-mail and adopted many of the Cheney panel's recommendations.

And this doesn't even touch on the sex and drug scandals that plagued the Minerals Management Service under Bush's watch.

Needless to say, this isn't the kind of political history Rove wants publicly re-hashed in an important election year.

Maybe the GOP's most storied strategist in recent years is finally back on message.

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