If southern Florida was destined to be struck by Hurricane Andrew, it can at least be grateful the unwelcome visitor arrived just weeks before a national election. President Bush, unabashedly using the full power of incumbency, has opened the federal coffers to Andrew's many victims. He even has vowed to rebuild Homestead Air Force Base, a devastated facility that a bipartisan commission had given low priority even before the storm.
Mr. Bush's multi-billion dollar beneficence for Florida, a key state in Republican campaign planning, promises to reverse the imagery of his first faltering response to the nation's costliest natural disaster. His return visit to the stricken area, plus an Oval Office appeal for private donations, constituted a clear political plus. Democratic candidate Bill Clinton momentarily lost the limelight.
In these tactics, the tough hand of White House chief of staff James A. Baker III is evident. While his predecessor, the hapless Sam Skinner, was hesitant about any moves that might be described as political-year ploys, Mr. Baker displays no such coyness. The president has assured Louisiana cane sugar farmers, whose fields were flattened by Andrew, that he will not raise import quotas that keep sugar prices high.
Mr. Bush also is wooing wheat farmers in the Midwest with $1 billion in export subsidies, much to the dismay of European Community competitors. If this and the Louisiana import decision sound uncharacteristic of the free-trade president, it permits Mr. Bush to present himself as a leader eager to put domestic needs over foreign policy goals. The reverse impression, widely held by voters, has been a major re-election obstacle.
Governor Clinton will be in Florida today on a touchy mission. Tempting as it might be to taunt the president for declaring a national emergency after refusing similar action to fight the recession, the Democratic candidate can hardly afford to appear miserly toward citizens homeless and financially wiped out. Mr. Bush identified himself with their plight in his nationwide telecast.
Hurricane aid will become a first order of business for Congress after Labor Day. Emergency appropriations are likely to be asked and approved with a minimum of fuss, this despite the fact that they will add to an already record deficit. If there is controversy, it could well focus on the future of the Homestead base. With defense budgets shrinking in real terms and the Pentagon closing facilities all around the country, Homestead's reconstruction at an estimated cost of $500 million inevitably will come at the expense of other localities.
Political pork? Of course it is, but pork comes with the office -- along with cat calls and criticism. Mr. Bush should indeed be using his executive powers and declaiming from his "bully pulpit" on behalf of tens of thousands of suffering Americans. But to achieve real credibility, he should also determine what's wrong with the nation's disaster-response system -- and begin fixing it.