Just as Hurricane Katrina punctured the levees in New Orleans, it also created some surprising rifts in Washington. Republican loyalists are suddenly departing from the party line, and they are wading into the media to do so. Could it be that the Bush Administration P.R. machine, legendary for its message discipline, has begun to break down? The Washington Post's Dana Milbank talks with Bob about the post-Katrina political climate.
BOB GARFIELD: As Hurricane Katrina punctured the levees surrounding New Orleans, it generated some shocking headlines. One such was to be found this week in the Richmond Times Dispatch, a political story with the head: "Katrina Funding Divides GOP." Wait a minute. In the George W. Bush Administration a divided GOP? Could it be that the Bush White House P.R. machine, legendary for its media message discipline, has begun to break down? Washington Post political writer Dana Milbank observed that phenomenon and he joins me now. Dana, welcome back.
DANA MILBANK: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: So immediately after Katrina hit and chaos ensued, the White House did seem on-message. The term "blame game" was bandied about by the President and by Scott McClellan, his spokesman. And we heard the phrase from other Republicans all across the spectrum. But that quickly just kind of dissipated. Then what happened?
DANA MILBANK: Well, I think even before that, this was a case where the whole image apparatus had broken down. The President was on his ranch a couple of days too many after this occurred and then had that flight on Air Force One above New Orleans, and he said, "Boy, it looks pretty bad. It must look a whole lot worse down there." That really got him off on the wrong step. And then he compounded it with the "Brownie, heck of a job" remark and worrying about Trent Lott's porch. Now we're looking at a point where the White House is trying to get back in the game with the "blame game," trying to turn things around. It hasn't worked entirely well because their own members of the Republican Party on Capitol Hill were not for the most part following along with that. I think what you're really seeing is something of an insurrection among Republicans on the Hill.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it fair to say that the vaunted White House message juggernaut is on tilt?
DANA MILBANK: Well, to an extent it is fair to say. Now, the White House is still disciplined in the sense that Dan Bartlett is saying the same thing that Karl Rove's saying and that's the same thing that Andy Card is saying and the President. However, they seem to have lost their ability to make everybody else in the Republican Party and all of their surrogates around the country saying exactly the same thing.
BOB GARFIELD: Can you give me some examples of things that have been uttered by members of the GOP that never would have been uttered out of step, say, a year ago?
DANA MILBANK: Sure. This week you had the Treasury Secretary saying, "We think we need to put the extension of the tax cuts on the back burner." About an hour or an hour and a half later, Tom DeLay comes out and says, "We're not considering any [CHUCKLES] such thing. We're going right ahead with them." Vice-President Cheney said he does not want to have a "czar" to oversee the Katrina recovery. Many on the Hill, including John McCain, are saying we need to have that "czar." The President is talking about an open-ended commitment and others on the Hill are beginning to question how much and whether money should be spent on this recovery. Republicans realize that they're gonna have to go back to the voters, many of them next year, whereas the President will not have to do that at all again and the natural divisions are now really starting to show themselves for the first time.
BOB GARFIELD: Now the Democrats, for their part, haven't necessarily evinced much Party discipline either. They're all over the place on Katrina, on John Roberts. Tell me about their message management.
DANA MILBANK: Well, they're a disaster but that's nothing really new. The Democrats seem to have a congenital issue with being disciplined and staying on-message. It's aggravated by the fact that they really don't have a natural Party leader, so you have Howard Dean popping off here, Nancy Pelosi there. Harry Reid comes out against John Roberts. He's immediately cut down by Pat Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. Since they don't have one messenger, they have a lot of trouble having one message.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you've been watching Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett for some good while now. Can you imagine that they're going to permit these strays to continue to wander off? Or are they going to rope 'em back in real quick and - well, I won't torture the metaphor any further, but will there be order restored to the ranch?
DANA MILBANK: Well, they're certainly trying to do this. The problem is you can keep discipline by the threat of some sort of retribution. That's the danger of the lame duck Presidency is once the lawmakers perceive that the President is weakened and cannot really and truly punish them, and then there's really no way to get them back under control. Now, if the President can get his own numbers back up, that can certainly change. But when you're sitting there at 40 percent in the polls, suddenly everybody in Congress thinks that they're the genius, not the President.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Dana. As always, thank you very much.
DANA MILBANK: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Dana Milbank is a political reporter - [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] - and columnist for the Washington Post. Coming up, a new kind of television President. This is On the Media from NPR.