Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Ham Sandwich Republicans, Mama Cass Dems

With today's indictment of former House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay, we now have an opportunity to clean up our labels for conservatives. Who besides Andrew Sullivan can keep up with small government conservatives, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, neo-conservatives, compassionate conservatives, racist conservatives, sexist conservatives, homophobic conservatives, crusty conservatives, neanderthals, and (my favorite) rock-rib conservatives anyway. But now that a who's who of conservatives are being indicted, we have the opportunity to view all conservatives as "ham sandwich conservatives." Republicans complain that prosecutors can get indictments for ham sandwiches if they want, but it seems that all the ham sandwiches being indicted these days are conservative Republicans.

Of course, there's worse things than being a "ham sandwich" conservative in Washington--a "Mama Cass" Democrats for example. Despite the mushrooming scandals and failures of the Republicans, the Democrats maintain their extended state of paralysis. They must do "paralysis" work outs. Afraid of the Bush administration, afraid of the conservative attack machine, afraid of the mainstream media, afraid of their own anti-war popular constituencies, afraid of appearing dis-united, afraid of appearing overly partisan, afraid of defining their own agenda, the Democratic leadership in Washington gives political cowardice a bad name. In fact, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and their minions are so timid that they're probably afraid of eating ham sandwiches. Look what happened to Mama Cass!

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!

The Culpability of the Right

According to CNN, real aid is finally starting to arrive in New Orleans. Praise the Lord I don't believe in. Hopefully, the supplies will get to the neediest people in time to help. Nevertheless, almost everybody paying attention to the situation in New Orleans is disgusted with the Bush administration. The conservatism-uber-alles crowd has thrown out the usual distractions, but it isn't working. When the right plays the race card in relation to looters, audiences are disgusted by their rock-bottom racism. When the right "asks questions" about the feasibility of federal assistance, people are just as disgusted by the right's lack of concern for the public good. If conservatives cared about the disaster in New Orleans, they would follow the rest of the country in demanding a high standard from the federal government in a time of need. But conservatives are much more concerned with the political fortunes of the Republican Party than they are with the welfare of the country. So, they fruitlessly seek to defer accountability to a distant future.

Conservatives are right to delay the reckoning that should come as a result of the sickening government performance in New Orleans. This is because it is the conservative movement that is one of the root causes of the Bush administration's bungling in the Big Easy. Of course, the Bush administration has failed massively. Even though it has been known that a large hurricane would hit New Orleans since last Friday or Saturday, FEMA was unprepared, no National Guard units were on standby, little effort was made to procure supplies, and there seemed to be no contingency planning. It also turned out that the budget for flood-control in New Orleans had been cut by $60 or $70 million and no work had been done on the levees for the first time in 37 years. Why the lack of preparedness? A lot of people point to the commitment of manpower and resources to Iraq. To me, that's only a small part of the answer. The administration has been purposefully shortchanging urban areas like New York and New Orleans on disaster and terrorism preparation since 9-11, i. e, well before the Iraq invasion. Because of their right-wing allegiances, the Bush administration believes in minimum domestic government. To prepare areas like New Orleans for fighting off terrorist attacks or natural disasters means creating a larger domestic bureaucracy and hiring thousands of civil servants. The Bush administration did not want this for ideological purposes. The Bush administration and it's conservative supporters also view the rural parts of the country as the "real America"--the heartland-- and see the cities almost as foreign countries. So it doesn't want to spend domestic money in these areas even if it is forced to spend money. Finally, it doesn't help that urban areas consistently Democratic either.

The other reason why the Bush administration ignored the New Orleans levees, ignored FEMA, and ignored disaster preparation has to do with politics. The price for getting controversial legislation like the Medicare drug assistance program through Congress has been increasing the pork barrel largesse for Republican members of Congress. As a result, the Bush administration has been directing even more federal spending to rural red-states than usual. For example, my university in Kentucky got a $400,000 space science center courtesy of Republican Hal Rogers. The only problem is that NASA had cancelled the program that the center was supposed to be used for. Needless to say, that didn't stop money being spent in Rogers' district in Eastern Kentucky. The space center project in Morehead is part of the non-stop party that the Republicans and the Bush administration have been having with the federal treasury since Bush's first election in 2000. As a result, people have been dying in New Orleans so that Republican representatives from states like Kentucky and Nebraska can have enhanced pork barrel projects.

What about the political right in general? There are at least two reasons why the conservative movement in general is culpable for the disaster in New Orleans. First, conservatives have been attacking the taxing capacity of both federal and state governments for more than a generation. Because of conservative political successes, both parties have been afraid to vote for the taxes needed to support on-going projects like New Orleans disaster. As taxes have been cut, cut, cut, federal and state governments have become less and less capable of doing on-going maintenance of harbors, dams, bridges, air traffic control systems, and other large-scale infrastructure. In New Orleans, the levee system was not upgraded as more Level 4 and 5 hurricanes developed over the last few years. When the levees were ruptured, underfunded state and federal disaster programs were not capable of meeting either immediate or long-term needs. Because of conservative pressure on government to stop raising and spending money, the funds needed to maintain domestic infrastructure have not been spent and we've lost both a major city and a significant chunk of our oil refining capacity. Conservatives have also undermined national unity so much that people care less about what happens to fellow citizens in places like New Orleans. Neo-conservatives and conservatives have been in a constant state of war with blacks, popular culture, liberals, Congressional Democrats, gays, the state department, and the judiciary system for more than a decade now. The constant battling has worn down the commitment of most Americans to the civic culture that allows people in Idaho to be concerned about the levees in New Orleans, the Statue of Liberty in New York, orange growers in Florida, and wheat farmers in Oklahoma. Consequently, it is more difficult to get consensus on large scale infrastructure projects that serve particular regions. The bitterness of conservatives--they're sore winners even after their victories--has poisoned the well of American political culture. One of the permutations of that damaged culture is the disaster in New Orleans