I hope I’m not bringing the storm curse to Tampa. The last time I covered a GOP convention, in New York in 2004, the Florida delegation had to hustle out early as Hurricane Frances barreled ahead to central Florida. I arrived at Orlando’s eerily shuttered airport on the last plane allowed to land, with hefty wind gusts raising the stakes.
Tropical Storm Isaac — or maybe Hurricane Isaac — may be out in the Gulf of Mexico Monday when the Republican National Convention begins, but, if not, there’s a grand tradition in the Grand Old Party of devastating storms messing up their message. So maybe it’s not me.
Even when the Republicans head far north, as they did in 2008 for the convention in St. Paul, Minn., Gulf Coast states have to reckon with disaster. In 2008 Hurricane Gustav’s fury forced John McCain campaign’s to trim the program that first night so as not appear to be partying after a natural disaster. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist stayed in Florida, as governors are wise to do in such emergencies, and spoke at the convention by videotape.
Nor can South Floridians forget the Houston convention of 1992, when President George H.W. Bush was nominated for a second term that never materialized. Hurricane Andrew, the most destructive storm we’ve had to deal with in modern times, came roaring in just days after the RNC pow-wow in Houston was over. I’m convinced President Bush’s initial slow response to the tragedy, and delays in sending federal help, killed his chances for re-election in South Florida. (Not to mention the “storm” of independent billionaire Ross Perot’s candidacy splitting the Republican vote and handing the win to Bill Clinton.)
Former President George W. Bush won a second term after the 2004 hurricanes smacked Florida, but his emergency manager’s slow response to the killer flooding when the old dikes crumbled in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 didn’t help his party the next year when Democrats took over the House. Images of New Orleans’ poor black residents begging for help on their destroyed homes’ rooftops were hard to erase. And Bush’s “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!” attempt at defending emergency manager Michael Brown astounded many.
Storms offer political lessons for politicians of all parties. They test their ability to empathize, to reach out to the downtrodden, to raise the spirits of a people in need.
Clinton was a great “I feel your pain” president during disasters — he never missed making a public appearance, having a flyover to assess the destruction, offering a warm hug and a tear for a survivor.
Jeb Bush, who as Florida governor had to face more hurricanes than many of his predecessors, had that special touch, too, with hurricane victims who cried on his shoulders as he rushed from one emergency center to another to help ensure there were plentiful supplies. I remember watching him at one such site in Osceola County. Such empathy during a crisis seemed to come naturally to him.
This convention offers Mitt Romney the chance to empathize — with or without a tropical storm heading his way. I’m just not sure the former Massachusetts governor has it in him. Maybe it’s part of his long Mormon tradition — they don’t drink coffee, much less beer. I don’t mean that as a criticism of his faith (his is hardly the only religion that prohibits such things), but he may be asking a lot out of a nation of caffeinated and booze-friendly voters to let him lead us.