Do Senate Republicans really think they can shift the blame for the flooding and deaths in New Orleans to environmentalists? Maybe that’s not the question we need to ask ourselves.

This smear effort could become a significant distraction for eco-advocates — at a time when a focus on implementing good wetlands policies in the Gulf is crucial, and as Republicans try to weaken environmental protections and implement bad energy policies as part of rebuilding efforts.

Groups ranging from Louisiana’s Save Our Wetlands to American Rivers to the Sierra Club have issued angry rebuttals to the charges that environmental lawsuits helped destroy New Orleans. Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) have also issued statements castigating the effort.

Gristmill reader Stentor Danielson makes an astute observation on his own blog: that the smear campaign is a good strategy to absolve President Bush for responsibility for the post-hurricane disaster in the eyes of his core supporters, even though he’s ostensibly accepted some of the blame:

… blaming environmentalists is actually a clever strategy here, rather than a waste of PR money. And it’s clever not because it’s going to sway anyone on the fence about Bush’s handling of the hurricane, but because it speaks to those who are already Bush partisans. People hold their views more strongly the more they feel that they “hang together,” mutually supporting each other. Libertarians, for example, are able to maintain a viewpoint that runs orthogonal to the prevailing camps not because they just happen to agree with lassiez-faire economics and abortion each on their own merits, but because they have a meta-narrative that tells them that those positions go together …

The explanations for any one event (such as Katrina) by ideologues serve not just to promote their side’s take on the issue at hand, but also to tie it into all of the other positions that side holds. So blaming environmentalists for the levee breaches assures conservatives not only that Bush is not to blame, but also that that view goes well with the conservative dislike of environmentalism and (perhaps more importantly) the judiciary. When your beliefs seem to cohere like that, your confidence that you have correctly judged the merits of any one of them increases.

But wait, there’s more. According to Los Angeles Times, a special House panel met on Saturday to discuss how the National Environmental Policy Act contributed to the disaster, part of an ongoing campaign to gut this cornerstone environmental protection law:

A controversial project to build a hurricane barrier for New Orleans 40 years ago and an environmental lawsuit that stopped construction have moved to the center of a political battle to reform federal environmental laws.

A House panel today will examine whether New Orleans defenses against Hurricane Katrina were compromised by the suit, which resulted in an injunction in 1977. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dropped the project by 1986 in favor of raising levees in the city.

The hearing in Norfolk, Va., is part of an effort by conservatives to reform the National Environmental Policy Act. Under the law, environmentalists have challenged hundreds of public and private projects.

… Amid growing efforts by conservatives to reform NEPA, the 1960s-era hurricane barrier and the environmental suit that blocked it have become a celebrated cause among conservatives in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“Reform NEPA”? Sure.

Okay, let’s add it up. One smear campaign nets the administration three benefits: distraction, as Democrats and eco-advocates rush to denounce it; absolution, because even though Bush took responsibility for federal response failures after Katrina, it’s really those eco-zanies to blame in the end; and, possibly, the evisceration of a keystone environmental protection law.