Straight from the floor of the GOP convention in St. Paul CNN is breathlessly reporting (do they know any other mode?) the evacuation of New Orleans as Hurricane Gustav. Could Republican strategists be any happier?

Sure, you may think that Republicans would not want to remind American voters of the BushAdmin’s oblivious response to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the incompetence of FEMA, the cronyism that put Michael Brown as head of the organization, and the continued failure of the federal government to save a major urban touchstone of American culture.

But look at this image.

McCain and Bush during Katrina
(Hat tip to Brad Delong.)

Taken as Katrina surged over the levy walls and thousands suffered in the Superdome, this picture documents a happy celebration of President Bush’s birthday. Dig in, boys!

This is the image that John McCain must counteract with new images: John McCain monitoring preparations in Mississippi; John McCain comforting evacuees; John McCain touring areas devastated by Gustav; John McCain delivering boxes of food and medicine for hurricane victims. If by the end of the week there is not a widely circulated photo of McCain handing a water bottle to a child in a hurricane shelter, then I have overestimated the semiotic talents of his campaign.

“But,” the naive will say, “that’s politicizing a tragedy!” Of course it is. Why do you think John Edwards launched (and closed) his campaign from New Orleans? It is an inherently political situation. The federal government (not to mention state and local governments) has consistently failed to protect, to care for and to revive the city. Instead the free-marketeers have been turned loose, privatizing the hospitals and the schools and whatever else is lying around. Blackwater mercenaries roam the streets. Most Americans view this tragedy as a colossal failure. Combined with the string of lies and fuckups in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina is the main reason Bush is the most hated President since Nixon — even more than Nixon some days.

The Democrats had a remarkably successful convention. Barack Obama’s acceptance speech drew a stadium packed with 80,000 people and a TV audience of 38 million viewers. McCain followed up with the worst pick for Vice President since Dan Quayle.

None of that may matter should McCain demonstrate through “presidential” actions of engagement and compassion that in moments of national security or disaster he is no callously indifferent bumbler like George Bush. Or, as Wolf “Conventional Wisdom (sic)” Blitzer has just put it, “Have they learned the lessons of Katrina?” The GOP will be arguing the affirmative.

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