Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Democrats Would Have Done Better!

It seems that right-wingers have responded to the outpouring of disgust with the Bush administration with two arguments. First, they claim that the natural calamity in New Orleans was so overwhelming that no government could have responded well to it. Their second claim is more specific, that the Demcrats would have done no better than the Bush administration. They are entirely mistaken on both counts, not that that makes any difference to them.

There are natural calamities that human beings can do only so much about. Buildings would fall, bridges would collapse, and people would die if an 8 or 9 point earthquake hit San Francisco. However, San Francisco has exercised "due diligence" on earthquake dangers. San Francisco has building codes that mandate earthquake resistant buildings, a functioning civil defense apparatus, and a general sense of purpose in meeting the earthquake threat. When I lived in the Bay Area, there was a lot written about what to do during an earthquake. I also would bet my bottom dollar that National Guard units in California have workable plans for responding to serious earthquakes.

There are three ways in which the Bush administration did not exercise such "due diligence" in relation to the danger of hurricans in New Orleans. First, they did not work to upgrade and reinforce the New Orleans levee system. Second, the Bush administration downgraded FEMA to a shell of what it had been during the Clinton years. Third, the Bush administration was very slow in responding to the danger to New Orleans as it emerged last week.In fact, the hurricane itself did not devastate New Orleans. The city wasn't blown over by winds. Rather, the hurricane caused Lake Ponchartrain (sp) to spill over the city's levees which then destroyed the city. The New Orleans levees are primarily (perhaps wholly) the responsibility of the federal government, specifically the Army Corps of Engineers. A federal study before 9/11 identified the danger of hurricanes to New Orleans as one of the top three calamities that could happen to the U. S. Did the Bush administration respond by upgrading or reinforcing the levees around New Orleans? NO! To the contrary, they began to do LESS flood-control work. Moreover, NO work on the New Orleans levees was authorized for this PAST year. If the Bush administration had fulfilled its responsibilities and upgraded the levees, there might not have been a calamity in New Orleans at all. If they had upgraded the levees and disaster had still happened, they could sleep well at night knowing they had exercised due diligence. As things stand, however, the Bush administration is culpable for the calamity because they did not exercise due diligence in preparing for a large hurricane.

Second, the Bush administration downgraded its capacity to respond to natural disaster. It's been widely reported that FEMA was pretty much stripped of its expertise and capacities when it was incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security. In this sense, the federal government purposefully degraded the ability of the federal government to respond to natural disasters like hurricanes. I imagine that right-wingers would argue that it was important to build up defenses against terrorism after 9-11. But it should have been obvious that the federal government also needed to maintain its natural disaster preparedness. It's not like there haven't been a lot of major hurricanes and earthquakes over the last fifteen years. When the Bush administration chose tax cuts over things like disaster preparation, it was being negligent and the consequences are before us. The Bush administration is culpable for the deaths that have occurred as a result of the federal government's weak efforts. Hundreds of people died while waiting four or five days for help from an undermanned and underfunded FEMA to begin arriving. All of these deaths were negligent homicides.

But it wasn't just FEMA's lack of capacity. It appeared that the Bush administration also failed to mobilize itself after Katrina emerged from the Gulf. The Bush administration not only was not prepared for the disaster, they did not act like they were interested in responding once it became clear that calamity was a real possibility. This is where people get so angry and disgusted with Bush. The Bush administration did not start to get fully mobilized until Thursday and Friday when the calamity emerged as a political liability. On top of the lack of preparation and lack of response capacity, there was also the strong sense that the Bush administration was fiddling while people died for lack of food, water, and medical attention.

Would the Democrats have done better? The answer has to be yes. Bill Clinton made a point of having a particularly competent FEMA director and giving FEMA the resources to do their jobs successfully. George Bush acknowledged as much himself. If anything, Al Gore was more interested in the mechanics of effective domestic government than Clinton. I think it is safe to say that a Gore administration would have had a better-led and better-funded FEMA and thus been more prepared for natural calamities. Gore is also a much harder working man and much more of an on-top-of-things leader than George Bush. It's also safe to say that Gore would have responded much more quickly and much more diligently than Bush would have to this disaster. He wouldn't have been as good before the cameras once he got on site, but Gore wouldn't have been in bed at 9, wouldn't have been on vacation for five weeks, and would not have blown it the way Bush did.

The main question, however, is whether a Democratic administration would have exercised due diligence in reinforcing the damn levees. Of course, we can't really know, but I think it's most likely that such would be the case. The Democratic Party establishment did its best to promote the idea of domestic preparedness for terror attacks after 9-11. They were interested in reinforcing subway systems, bridges, large buildings, and things like that so terror attacks would be less damaging. If a Democratic administration had been in charge, upgrading the New Orleans levees probably would have been high on the priority list. The other considerations that lead me to think the Democrats would have done better are negative. The Democrats did not have a huge tax cut agenda and did not have a tremendous desire to invade Iraq. So, they would have had more resources to upgrade the levees, fund FEMA, and things like that. If there had a Democratic administration, New Orleans would have been better prepared for a hurricane, the federal government would have had more capacity to respond to disaster, and President Gore would have done a better job of leading the response. The Democrats would have done better!


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