Thursday, April 27, 2006

FEMA Drowned in Bathtub

What Kevin Drum says.

Crippled by years of poor leadership and inadequate funding, the Federal Emergency Management Agency cannot be fixed, a bipartisan investigation says in recommendations to be released Thursday.

....Describing FEMA as a "shambles and beyond repair," [Republican Senator Susan] Collins said the overall report "will help ensure that we do not have a repeat of the failures following Hurricane Katrina."

This is truly remarkable. FEMA was a fine organization for eight years under Bill Clinton, widely recognized as one of the best run agencies in the federal government. But after a mere five years of George Bush's stewardship there's now a bipartisan consensus that it's so rundown that the only choice is to get rid of it and build a completely new agency in its place. Astonishing.

It's hard to put into words the true scope, the level of utter malfeasance embodied in this administration's--and this Congress's--Katrina debacle. Combine an administration led and staffed by people ideologically opposed to government service and crony-hires committed to savaging the previous administration and prepping for the next contract payoff with a Congress more concerned about flag-burning than bureaucratic oversight, and you get the drowning of a major American city, the death of over 1,300 people, most of them poor and black, and the demolition of a critically important and once highly respected government agency. All of this would have been awful enough even if 911 had never happened. But given what the administration's apologists claim is a threat dire enough to warrant the surrendering of our most basic civil liberties, the failure, if not purposeful strategy of crippling one of the most critical departments responsible for meeting that threat is truly stupifying.

But it would be a mistake to cast the Katrina-FEMA catastrophe as only a Bush, or even just a Republican Party failure. The cause goes much deeper than that. It symbolizes the effects of radical conservatism, from the war-mongering neocons to the hate-filled minions on talk radio and cable TV, to the Christian Reconstructionists who only want the government to criminalize abortion, gays and non-Christian worship. The conservative movement's forty year quest for power has born its worst, worm-infested piece of low-hanging fruit. It's aim for over forty years has been the destruction of the government's ability to respond to the needs of the vulnerable. And through FEMA and Katrina, it succeeded.

If Democrats want to make this an issue in the 2006 elections--and I obviously believe they should, as should any thinking or caring individual--they shouldn't pin it all on George W. Bush, who despite his failings is more of a symbol than driving force of conservatism's bankrupt politics. Democrats should point to the main culprit--radical conservatism itself. One of its main organizers and ideological enforcers, Grover Norquist, has stated that he wished for the Republican Party to shrink the size of government till it could be drowned in a bathtub. He and his elected partners have succeeded, in the case of Katrina, all too well.

Republicans have spent the last four decades laying the blame for every disaster, personal tragedy and negative statistic at the door of Liberalism. Democrats have been reluctant to respond in kind, partly because the GOP has so skillfully made liberalism a byword while elevating its own label to "third-rail" status. If Democrats want to recapture the majority, both in government and in the country at large, they will have to, sooner or later, begin the arduous but necessary task of challenging the radical conservative underpinnings and rhetorical labeling of the opposition. And the continuing aftermath of Katrina is as good a point as any to begin that process.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Gore and the Common Good

In my last post, I outlined some reasons why I don't think Michael Tomasky's Common Good theme is good for progressive Democrats.

Since then, there have been two developments that have caused me to qualify those objections, at least a little. The first is rapidly rising (again) gas prices. The second are the reviews of Al Gore's soon to be released movie on global warming and the environment: An Inconvenient Truth. Obviously I think these two developments are convergent, and that both have implications for a Democratic vision based on notions of the Common Good.

First, the issue of gas prices. While, like Atrios, we may shake our heads at how the mainstream media is so quick to run "news stories" showing upset consumers at gas stations, David Niewert and Billmon explain why the issue of gas prices is more than just gas.

Meanwhile, at the same time as issues of energy policy are getting more attention, along comes Al Gore, who's climate-change, Powerpoint demonstration is being adapted to the big screen. Republicans had a lot of fun recalling Gore's Earth in the Balance writings during the 2000 campaign, using it as yet another link in a chain supposedly indicating how geeky and out of touch Gore was. But now, conservative critics of global warming, and of environmental causes generally, are in retreat.

For those of us uninspired by the thought of a Hilary candidacy, and hoping someone else, anyone else, with greater stature, credibility, or electability may yet enter the 2008 race, we can wonder whether Gore's moment might be arriving.

For amazing as it might sound, of all the prospective 2008 candidates, Al Gore, Al Gore! may be the visionary one. He's raked the administration over the coals on NSA wire-tapping and lambasted the attempt by Justice Sunday-Christian Reconstructionists to bulldoze the wall separating church and state. But it's his signature issue--the environment--that may give Gore his (and our) best chance to shift the national debate. Environmental protection, natural resource conservation and development, and climate change projections are issues Gore is knowledgeable and passionate about, and as it happens, also issues currently and extremely relevant to our nation's, and world's, economic futures. It seems to be that this set of issues also could prove to be the best test for a campaign and governance strategy oriented around the concept of the Common Good. It avoids the narrow-minded, leave-no-corporation-behind, Tax Cut agenda of the conservatives, as well as the standard "pocket-book", special interest driven, redistribute-the-economic-pie-type politics that many Democrats, like Tomasky, seem to find so bankrupt from our own party. Gore campaigning on the environment in 2008 would finally give the Democrats the kind of unifying, visionary, nation-wide, identity-shaping agenda that so many seem to think the Democrats have been lacking in recent elections.

Sound good? If not, why not?

Well, after feeling like I had had an epiphany, I began to have some doubts.

First, the price of gas could quickly head back down, particularly if the bomb-Iran rhetoric coming from the administration and its neocon media hawks starts to subside, negating the potential appeal to the Common Good that high gas prices may have made viable. And even if gas prices stay high, the public could very well adapt to them, making energy and environmental issues less salient generally, and Gore a less appealing candidate. If the gas issue is kaput, so is the Democrat's unifying, global vision, at least one driven by this issue.

But second, even if gas prices remain high and the public remains concerned, that doesn't mean it will be attracted to the type of belt-tightening measures an environmentally-focused, non-self-interest-based political campaign would be making. This seems especially true if Democrats hope to ride a new environmentalism from the primaries through to November.

Which brings me to what I think is another problem with the Common Good campaign model: trying to get people to look beyond their self interest could easily come across as hectoring, lecturing, or finger-pointing. And people don't take to that very well, even if they're more than happy to have a candidate hector, lecture and finger-point at someone else.

Since 1968, and particularly in 1980 and George Bush II, Republicans have been very good at two things: one, making a virtue out of ignorant, numbskullness; and two, making church-goers, construction workers, and insurance sales-persons think it's the other people who need to be personally responsible. If there's been a campaign by either party before that has centered on suggesting that its voters or the majority of Americans need to change, and that has succeeded, I am personally unaware of it.

So I'm not necessarily optimistic that high gas prices, theories of peak oil, and rising global temperatures can be the new centerpiece of a victorious Democratic governing vision or campaign strategy. I'm not sure how ready the middle-class is to restrain its consuming and spending patterns, to admit that sacrifice and responsibility may need to be exercised by all of us, and not just the "deviants". I'm not sure how politically viable it would be.

But it just might be the right thing to do.

And that would be an identity worth having.