Katrina's Victims Of Ideology

President George W. Bush's trip to the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast this week brings to mind a 1992 tragicomedy starring his father, President George H.W. Bush. Struggling to connect with voters who felt neglected by the administration in the midst of a recession, Bush clumsily interjected into a New Hampshire campaign speech a margin note an aide intended to keep the elder Bush focused on what he needed to convey to voters. The note he ended up uttering read, "Message: I care."

On Monday, the eve of the first anniversary of Katrina making landfall on the Gulf Coast, the "Message: I Care" tour of Bush the younger began in Biloxi, Miss. "Laura and I really care for the people whose lives have been affected," Bush said. "We understand the trauma, and we thank you for your determination."

The problem with Bush's statement of caring -- as the people of New Orleans, where he travels today, know all too well -- is that regardless of what may be in his heart, President Bush believes in a set of policies -- indeed, an ideology of government -- that is not capable of a caring response to a national human tragedy. A report released today by the Campaign for America's Future lays out the case in graphic terms.

The report chronicles the three conservative failures of Katrina -- the failure to prepare, the failure to respond and the failure to rebuild. "Behind all the failures," the report concludes, "is a failed promise." The report goes on to say:

In the wreckage of New Orleans, President Bush seemed to discover the problems of entrenched poverty in America. He promised not just to rebuild New Orleans but to address the problems behind the ruin.
It was a promise written on the wind. Since Katrina, the White House has advanced not a single program to redress poverty. Worse, it has pushed through appropriations that cut food stamps, Medicaid, and Pell Grants designed to help capable youth rise beyond their backgrounds. Katrina offered an opportunity to rebuild a city on a model of high road development -- high wage, low waste, efficient use of energy -- rather than "race to the bottom" capitalism. The opportunity is lost, not because of natural disaster, but because of catastrophic conservatism and its scorn for government purpose

Bush 43 governs under the considerable shadow of conservative icon Ronald Reagan, who famously said in his 2001 inauguration speech, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Bush 43's inept embrace of Reagan's maxim has resulted in the literally deadly combination of negligent government and record government debt. The negligence continues to hamper the effort to repair New Orleans and other Katrina-damaged communities.

The debt, a product of the billions poured into the Iraq misadventure and wrongheaded tax cuts, drains capital -- both financial and political -- away from housing, education and other pressing needs. But, perhaps most importantly, the conservative ideology that says we are not each others' keeper -- and yet applauds as government fiercely defends the interests of those who have the most -- has brought us to where we are today: To a Gulf Coast where the old inequities of race and class have been amplified in the year since the storm.

It is that ideology, it is worth recalling, that helped drive the key decision to downgrade the Federal Emergency Management Agency from a highly praised, Cabinet-level organization to a backwater operation buried inside the labyrinthine Department of Homeland Security. It is an ideology that valued cronyism over expertise and put the dubiously qualified Michael D. Brown in charge. It is an ideology that put property rights and commercial prerogatives over wetlands protection in the Mississippi Delta, which led to the removal of many of the natural barriers that would protect New Orleans from the full force of a hurricane. It is an ideology that also drove many of the short-sighted funding decisions about levee construction in the years before Katrina struck -- for many conservatives only grudgingly support federal infrastructure investment -- and which today continues to value what is cheap over what is right.

Today, hundreds of thousands of Gulf residents are still displaced; unemployment in New Orleans, at 7.2 percent, is higher than it was before the hurricane struck; and redevelopment in historically working-class neighborhoods lags far behind that of wealthier areas. The Bush administration's zeal to build an "ownership society" has helped some property owners rebuild their homes, but as the Campaign for America's Future report puts it, New Orleans reconstruction now "resembles a government-subsidized gentrification plan that rebuilds the classic, historic and poor sections of town with new homes that former residents can't afford."

And yet, an administration that is so parsimonious in the face of requests for aid to the poor appears almost nonchalant in the face of the continuing waste of billions of taxpayer dollars on such items as thousands of unused FEMA trailers in Hope, Ark., and other holding areas. The administration's apparent unbridled faith in the private sector, its persistent cronyism and its resistance to vigorous oversight has dominated the government response to Katrina. One result, according to a report this month by House Government Operations Committee ranking member Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., has been the awarding of $8.75 billion worth of "problem contracts" in which there is evidence of waste, fraud or mismanagement.

It is true that the failures of the Hurricane Katrina recovery are not the fault of only one branch of government or of one party. But what is clear is that entrusting the reins of government to an administration which holds in utter contempt the very notion of government as a protector of the public welfare is folly. The Bush administration's inner circle of advisors still includes Grover Norquist, the never-met-a-tax-cut-I-didn't-like crusader who famously pledged to fight to get government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

Conservatism, it should now be plain to see, is not the answer to the problem; conservatism is the problem. In the face of the economic as well as national security issues we face, the urgent task is to make government better, so that it can be for all people an effective instrument to heal the wounds of the Gulf Coast and strengthen the health of the nation.
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