It may not have been what he intended, but last night President Bush ceded the ideological debate over the proper size and scope of government. Calling for “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen,” he made it absolutely clear where the responsibility for rebuilding the Gulf Coast region resides:
“Federal funds will cover the great majority of the costs of repairing public infrastructure in the disaster zone, from roads and bridges to schools and water systems.”
This new found faith in the vital role of government was echoed in his mea culpa of sorts, in which he acknowledged the abject failure of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security:
“The system, at every level of government, was not well coordinated and was overwhelmed in the first few days. It is now clear that a challenge on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces, the institution of our government most capable of massive logistical operations on a moment’s notice.”
But perhaps most significant was the president’s acknowledgment that our nation is rife with deep and persistent poverty, that it is rooted in history and race, and that the government has an obligation to provide opportunity to all its citizens.
As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. And that poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality.
Of course, the actual proposals and platitudes in last night’s speech are just so many words — the devil remains in both the details, and the execution. But the overall theme of big government lending a big hand to those in need, is more reminiscent of FDR’s New Deal than the Reagan Revolution. While I do not trust the president’s deeds to match his words, it is important to note that the disaster has forced his administration to adopt a classic liberal-progressive frame that neo-conservative think tanks have spent the better part of four decades drowning. Last night’s speech acknowledges that a strong, functioning, compassionate America requires a strong, functioning and compassionate federal government. It is not just a recognition of the need for good government, but rather, an implicit reminder that in a functioning republic, government is good.
As with the Mississippi flood of 1927, historians may look back on Hurricane Katrina and see a tidal surge of political change. Author John M. Barry writes that before this unprecedented natural disaster there was no national consensus that the federal government should fund large public works. But the Coolidge administration’s initial inept and callous response gave way under popular pressure to massive and widely successful reconstruction and employment programs… setting a precedent for FDR’s vastly larger New Deal a decade later.
In the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina, President Bush — like Coolidge before him — seemed genuinely taken aback by criticism of the federal response. Taken at face value, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” was a declaration that everything was going according to plan… a plan that clearly did not envision a decisive federal role in a regional emergency.
All that has now changed. Confronted with an angry public backlash and plummeting poll numbers, Bush has been forced to adopt the language of liberalism, if not the ideals themselves. This is an opportunity that must not be wasted, and it is imperative now that Democrats in Congress remain absolutely disciplined and vigilant… for only relentless oversight can assure a successful reconstruction. The stakes are high, not only for the people of the Gulf Region, but for the future direction of our nation. $200 billion in reconstruction can buy a lot of roads and bridges and schools… but if it is spent wisely, compassionately, and effectively, it will also make a large down-payment on restoring Americans’ faith in government.
Hurricane Katrina cut through the impenetrable bullshit of Grover Norquist and his fellow neo-cons as easily as it breached the concrete walls of the 17th Street Canal. By abandoning their rhetoric, President Bush may have sounded the death peal of a movement, and history may look back on last night’s speech as the moment a failed ideology drowned in a bathtub of its own creation: the flooded, corpse-ridden streets of New Orleans.
[Cross-posted at Daily Kos]