September 17th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

I Guess Now We Know What It Takes to Bring Out His Inner "Compassionate Conservative"

OK, today I got around to studying the complete text of the President's speech from New Orleans, the one that (like all of his) I ended up snoozing halfway through despite all my best efforts. And truth be told, it's a doozy, especially for him. While both Clinton and Reagan would have done a better job of delivering it, and the Clinton staff would have come up with prettier prose, it's a pretty good speech, with some remarkably good ideas and remarkably little to be afraid of. For 24 hours now, on MSNBC the right-wing Democrats like Chris Matthews and almost all Republicans have been beating on this speech like it was a red-headed stepchild; the favorite insults from both of them are that "it sounds like a speech FDR might have given" and that it "would make Lyndon Johnson swoon" (both lines originating with Chris Matthews, I think, but both have spread pretty widely apparently). Now, truthfully, it doesn't qualify as either of those things unless Bush were to recommend doing these things for everybody who needs them, not just the survivors of the destruction of the 32nd largest metropolitan area in the country and many other coastal cities in the same disaster.

What's causing tongues to wag is that most people are flatly incapable of imagining any of this stuff coming out of George W. Bush's mouth. It only barely surprises me, but then, I know why most of you are so surprised: you only started paying attention to what Bush was saying after the election 2000 Republican South Carolina primaries. This is the kind of thing that Bush wanted to run on, before he needed the Grover Norquist and Pat Robertson factions of the party to endorse him if he was going to beat John McCain and get to run against Al Gore. Still, there's some genuinely history-making stuff in there. This is practically the first time since Lincoln that a Republican has even mentioned racism. It's also just about the first time in the last 25 years that any Republican has admitted that past racism still has ongoing economic consequences, that our current economy isn't totally color-blind.

For a Republican President, to admit that many of the people who were left behind to drown in New Orleans were poor, not because they didn't try hard enough but at least in part because of the color of their skin, is a stunning admission, an amazing concession to reality. It doesn't get credit for fully facing reality, though: you'll notice he said the "legacy of inequality," that is to say, he didn't admit that any current bigotry might be holding back Americans of African descent. But it's a pretty good start!

His proposal for how to manage the construction and repair funds is absolutely Solomonic. One of the major obstacles to rebuilding roads and levees and water treatment facilities and so forth that were wiped out by the hurricane is that, properly speaking, there isn't anybody you could trust to do it. The last thing anybody wants is to hand that responsibility over to the feds, because by the time the pork got handed out to the other 48 states to buy the necessary votes in Congress, then Republican campaign contributors got their slice of graft, and then a whole new federal bureaucracy got staffed up and installed in new, newly redecorated office space (come on, you know full well that would happen), there wouldn't be enough money left to patch a single pothole. On the other hand, the Louisiana state government and the New Orleans city government are among the most famously corrupt in America, so there's the realistic fear that if they got to control the money, by the time they got done stealing from it, there once again wouldn't be enough left to patch a single pothole. The solution? Full state and local control ... followed up by a swarm of federal auditors, inspectors general, looking to make their names and careers by exposing any graft.

What's more, this does Bush a huge favor: it gets him off the hook for what's going to be a very unpopular set of decisions. The president suggested that the majority of the work should be done by local firms. Except, of course, that the local firms' key employees are now scattered across something like 34 states, and not coming back for a while now because they're still reeling from the hurricane. And the offices that they'd be managing from, handling payroll from, and bidding contracts from are mostly either still under water, or blown to kindling. So no matter what the best intentions are, it's going to be out-state firms (yes, including Halliburton) that get a lot of really lucrative rebuilding contracts ... and it'll end up being in-state local politicians who get backed into the corner of having to admit that. In return, though, it does a huge favor for the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana: it finally gives them the leverage to shut down an Army Corps of Engineers boondoggle that they don't want, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, which almost certainly made the flooding damage worse, and if it didn't, it's pretty much guaranteed to do so in the future.

There are a few stinkers in there; there would have to be. If you look at the fact sheet on the White House web site, you find this nugget, the one that I find the most aggravating: "To ensure that displaced families have maximum flexibility to meet the education needs of their children, the President's proposal would provide compensation to displaced families for enrollment in private, including parochial, schools." Oh, good, because they couldn't get this unconstitutional stinker of an idea in through the front door, let's sneak it in through the back door by disguising it as "compassion" and "flexibility."

But there's a good chance that all of it hardly matters, in practical terms. To quote one of the hoariest clichés of American politics, "The President proposes; Congress disposes." Virtually none of the really interesting things that Bush said are things that he can do, by himself or through the branch of the government he controls. Virtually all of it would require legislation or budget approval from Congress. And frankly, I have no idea who Bush thinks is going to vote for this. The vast majority of his own party are going to hate almost everything in that speech with a fiery passion, consider it a vile, treasonous betrayal of the sacred writ of Reaganomics. The right-wing Democratic Leadership Council isn't going to support it for the same reason; they're also too committed to supply-side trickle-down voodoo economics. That leaves the almost vestigial Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, who probably would like most of it in principle, but are going to find excuses to vote against it because they hate Bush and would probably rather let thousands of people rot in shelters before they'd let Bush get credit for saving them.

24 hours after the president gave that speech, his poll numbers on his handling of the hurricane Katrina crisis hadn't budged one percent. No surprise. Anybody who paid even rudimentary attention to Clinton's health care proposals or Bush's "social security reform" proposals has to know by now that just because the President wants it to happen, that doesn't mean it's going to happen. They're waiting to judge by the results, and who knows even now what if any results there'll be from night before last's speech.