Hurricane Katrina  
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A Societal Sea Change

The fundamental choices we make about rebuilding New Orleans will let everyone see what progressives (and conservatives) are made of.
 
 
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Remember how, when President Bush opened up our public lands to logging, he called it "Healthy Forests?" And remember how, when he gutted the Clean Air Act, he called it "Clear Skies?"

The plan he rolled out last week to rebuild the Gulf Coast should have been called the "New Great Society." As MSNBC's Joe Scarborough remarked during one post-speech spin session, aspects of the $300 billion plan would put Lyndon Johnson to shame. At least, that's how it appeared on TV. The reality is, of course, very different from the rhetoric.

But we progressives shouldn't merely fact check the president. We should contrast our ideas with his actions. The monumental task of rebuilding is loaded with fundamental choices about what kind of society we want to be. Let's make those choices as clear as possible in the coming months and years so that everyone has a chance to see what progressives--and what conservatives--are made of.

Here's a beginning:
 ON ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
Progressives believe in economic fairness. We believe that government has an important role in building an expansive, enduring middle class. That's why we're saying that the people who were hit hardest by the storm need to be given preferential treatment in the reconstruction efforts. They should be given health care and fair wages for their work so that they can muscle their way out of poverty and absorb the blows they've been dealt.

Meanwhile, Halliburton has already lined up tens of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts and President Bush has suspended a measure called the Davis-Bacon Act, which ensures decent wages for jobs funded by federal dollars. Additionally, everyone from Newt Gingrich to the Wall Street Journal's editors have recommended that the ravaged region be turned into a "free enterprise zone"--the president called it an "opportunity zone" last night--by slashing corporate taxes and regulations.

ON A STRONG SAFETY NET
Progressives believe that in a democracy, we have an obligation to take care of each other. In part, that means that when people fall down, we need to lend them a hand. That's why we have renewed our call for strengthening, not weakening, the social safety net--for those affected by the hurricane and for all Americans. We have urged Congress to halt its planned budget cuts in Medicaid, housing, food stamps and education and asked congressional leaders to abandon the president's plan to privatize Social Security.

We are also recommending that Congress repeal the recently passed bankruptcy laws to allow families struggling with disasters like Katrina the ability to seek some kind of economic relief.

Meanwhile, the White House has said it will persist with the president's plans to privatize Social Security and Congress refuses to give up its agenda of cutting $35 billion in Medicaid, food stamps and other vital services this fall.

ON ENERGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Progressives believe in maintaining a healthy environment that can sustain life indefinitely. And we believe in creating good jobs and new technologies in the process. That's why we have renewed our call to pass an  Apollo Alliance-style energy plan. We have laid out ideas to cut our dependence on fossil fuels, to mitigate future hurricanes by reducing global warming, to reduce flood surges by preserving wetlands, and to retool our homes, communities and transportation systems to ease energy use. And we have urged Congress to move quickly on Sen. Byron Dorgan's  planto tax some of the excess profits that energy companies have been raking in and to use the resulting revenue to invest in alternative forms of energy.

And two days ago, Barack Obama  offered a sweetheart deal to America's auto manufacturers: If they agree to cut auto emissions in half in 15 years, the government will help improve their economic competitiveness by covering their retirees' health care costs.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the disaster, the big oil lobby has been calling its friends on Capitol Hill. Sens. Pete Domenici and George Allen, along with Rep. Tom DeLay, hope to ease environmental rules on oil refineries, and permanently eliminate parts of the Clean Air Act--none of which will offer any relief to the current gouging of gas prices, nor reduce our dependence on Middle East oil.

And just yesterday, it was reported that the Republican head of the Senate environment committee is crafting legislation that would suspend EPA rules in the hurricane-affected areas, despite the fact that EPA chief Stephen Johnson has said there is no need for such waivers.

ON GOVERNMENT
Progressives believe in a smart and accountable government that promotes the principles of a strong community and works on behalf of everyone, not just a well-connected few. Starting last week, we have pressed for the creation of an independent investigation into what when wrong with the response to Katrina. Where there is incompetence, we have said that heads should roll. Where there is need for structural reform, we have counseled that it should occur quickly.

At the same time, the right-wing ideologues who control the GOP have used Katrina as an opportunity to waft the anti-government flames. One of the more vociferous voices of the right--Fox News' Tony Snow--has said we should privatize "everything from the Department of Commerce to many FEMA duties, and so on." Most of the dollars that are rushing to the region are being handed off to private groups, both for-profit and nonprofit. The nonprofit groups--which Bush refers to as the "armies of compassion"--are doing an amazing job, but they can't do the heavy lifting necessary to reconstruct entire communities and economies. And the private companies are notorious for swindling the government every chance they get--just look at what they've done in Iraq.

One hundred years ago, progressives faced an even larger challenge. They tackled the ravages of urban poverty and industrial growth that held so many people down all across the country. They cleaned up the slums, strengthened housing codes, took on government corruption, enhanced city services, forged municipal ownership of public utilities and started dismantling the entrenched political apparatus that stood in the way of other reforms.  It was good, hard moral work.

Repairing the Gulf Coast is the same kind of work. It's the kind of work that flows from a vision of society. The vision that conservatives have put forward in recent weeks represents their tired old ideas of the past. The vision we've put forth points to a new America.

It's our duty to continue showing what we're made of and to draw sharp contrasts between our values and theirs. If we're successful, it might just be the beginning of the next progressive era.

Nick Penniman is editor of TomPaine.com and program director at the Campaign For America's Future.