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Katrina, Abramoff, Iraq, Torture ... So What Else Is New?

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With an election approaching, where's Katrina?

Off dallying with Jack Abramoff in parts unknown, it seems.

Katrina was a historymaking event and ought to be a major election issue. But who's mentioning it on the trail, besides the people contending for William Jefferson's seat?

The nation is distracted by torture, Iraq, and other polarizing debates, so Katrina sits just off to the side of the political stage. Still, the storm remains lodged in the national psyche. It's the domestic Iraq: an easy shorthand for late-night comics to rip the president and FEMA. Images linger; but lessons, or political consequences - were there any of those? (Are there any for anything anymore?)

But Katrina is still working its way into the body politic in many ways. Adam Nagourney's NYT Magazine piece about GOP chairman Ken Mehlman devotes some space to his apparently sincere efforts to win over mostly-skeptical African-American voters. Naturally, it brings up Katrina as exhibit A in why he's unlikely to make much headway. At least, that's what Donna Brazile thinks:

Mehlman, Brazile said, was on a roll in 2005. "But Katrina washed away any illusions that Republicans had something to offer African-Americans," she told me. "I know he's out there every day. I just don't know if his sales pitch has any potency at the moment."

Mehlman also describes watching events unfold last August on CNN as he attended a wedding in Greece, and it drives him into a bottle. "Hurricane Ouzo," he calls it. (Admittedly, having Ken Mehlman in action that week would not really have helped matters.)

Brazile knows of what she speaks on black voters and the Republican Party. Bush didn't give Mehlman much to work with besides his stock agenda items, slightly repurposed. Then reality set even that effort back.

But what about Katrina and the Democrats? In the fierce dialectic between reality and belief that defines our politics now, the reality is both depressing and outrageous. Katrina and Iraq have also created a broad sense of discouragement, a lowering of expectations of what government does and can reasonably be expected to do. Ironically, given all the spectacular screwups of the past few years, a diminished view of government and national purpose doesn't help the Democrats. (Unless, of course, some Democrat happens to articulate a way forward. But don't hold your breath.)

John McQuaid is the co-author, with Mark Schleifstein, of Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans and the Coming Age of Superstorms.