Culture Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Cook argued several days ago that the hurricane would help Bush because it would distract attention from Iraq. He has changed his mind (emphasis mine):
I suspect that in the aftermath of Katrina there is a giant gap in public opinion separating those who have watched a good bit of horrifying television news coverage of the devastation and those who have not. Most of us viewers felt shock and disbelief at the images of death, destruction and misery we saw on Monday and Tuesday. Those feelings carried perhaps even into Wednesday. But the images on Thursday seemed to shift people from being numb to being angry.
An amazing special hour-long edition of "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams" on Thursday night was the most powerful and heart-wrenching network news broadcast I've ever seen. The images and stories told were so disturbing that anyone who watched would be hard-pressed not to feel frustrated and angry on behalf of those people who had gone for days with little or no food and water or those awaiting rescue and evacuation days after the hurricane hit and the levees broke.
Hearing an NBC cameraman describe babies dying on the floor of the New Orleans Convention Center and seeing the people of that city asking whether anyone was watching, listening or caring, my 12-year-old son had to leave the room because he was so angry at the slow response of governmental agencies. Likewise, my wife was furious. No matter what broadcast network or cable news network one watched, the images were the same -- of suffering and despair long after the hurricane hit and long past any reasonable time for rescues to have been completed.
The hurricane hit on Monday morning; the New Orleans levees broke on Tuesday. It is understandable, perhaps, that for the first 24 hours or so after the hurricane hit and the levees broke that the government didn't adequately respond. But it's hard to understand why food, drugs and water shipped from as far away as Seattle or Boston, let alone from Houston, Little Rock, Memphis, Birmingham and Atlanta, would not have begun to be distributed in sufficient amounts to feed everyone by Thursday. And it's hard to understand that military and civilian personnel stationed anywhere in the continental United States couldn't have reached the victims and rescued and evacuated the last of them by Thursday. The president's declaration on Friday, as he visited the scene, that the government response was "not acceptable" was the understatement of the week.
The racial aspect to all of this is equally discomforting. While it is absolutely true that there are large minority populations in southern Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi and that New Orleans is overwhelmingly African-American, it was hard to see so much footage of blacks stranded on rooftops or wading through floodwaters in search of food and not think about racial inequality: Most of New Orleans' white residents are more affluent and had the means to get out before Katrina struck.
Blaming Bush for everything, as some liberals were quick to do, is certainly unfair. Yes, his administration has to accept responsibility for having cut requests for Army Corps of Engineers funds to strengthen the New Orleans levees. But let's face it, much of New Orleans has been under sea level for as long as people have lived there, and it's safe to assume that the same areas would have flooded whether John Kerry, Al Gore or Bill Clinton were president today. It's impossible to say how fast any of these other men would have reacted, but on Bush's watch the reaction was too little, too late. The magnitude of this disaster is far beyond anything that a governor or mayor can handle without massive federal assistance, just as New York's problems on 9/11 weren't just a problem for that state and city to cope with.
The emphasized passages show the logic of how this hurts conservative Republicans. People are angry. The federal response was inadequate. There is a racial dimension that makes reasonable people squirm. This happened on Bush's watch and as President he is ultimately responsible for all of the federal government's actions. And the scope of the disaster is clearly beyond the purview of governors and mayors. (I'm not excusing any elected official of their responsiblity here though.)
Bart Mongoven of Strategic Forecasting, Inc. goes further. He thinks Katrina is probably the revival point for progressive Democrats, both within the Democratic Party and the electorate as a whole. I received his rather long essay by email, and here are a few important points:
Stratfor has been prescient in my experience, and quite adept at explaining the geopolitical impact of events. I hope they are right this time. Not because I want Democrats to exploit the victims of Katrina in any crass way, but because the shriveled government that resulted from the governing philosophy of both parties for the last 11 years has left FEMA a stump of an agency, bereft of disaster relief funding, stripped of clout, and staffed with cronies. And I think that is the primary reason it took so long for anyone to get aid to and evacuate the victims stranded in New Orleans. I'm not saying a Democrat would have done better. I'm saying a government that had been progressive for the last ten years would have done better. I really believe that.
Amid fears of price-gouging by gasoline retailers and descriptions of
"toxic soups" leaking from industrial facilities in the flood-hit
area, the Democrats will raise the issue of government's role in
regulating corporations to ensure that, in their pursuit of profit,
they do not trample on the well-being of American citizens. The DNC
will attack the Republican view of the government's appropriate role
by focusing on two GOP tenets that Katrina seems to have called into
question: first, the belief that smaller government is better, and
second, that state and local governments -- which are closer to the
citizens -- are better equipped and more efficient than the federal
government in dealing with local problems. These are fundamental
positions that the progressives have opposed for years, but which the
Democratic Party as a whole has hesitantly supported during the past.
In the end, the stories and arguments that emerge will pull from
progressive, rather than centrist Democratic, themes: race and
poverty, the need for dramatic changes in environmental protection,
the need for a strong central government, anti-war positions and many
The DNC's approach to issues has not changed markedly under Dean's
leadership, but the party is now in a position to benefit from a swing
back toward issues that will give progressives a voice in national
affairs. Even without Katrina's devastation, the party was due to
re-evaluate its support for small government and devolution. But amid
the debris from Katrina, this re-examination will become a virtual
recanting. Progressive party activists will argue that a decade spent
whittling the size of the federal government has resulted in a state
incapable of responding to a major natural disaster which, not
incidentally, resembles the hypothetical, catastrophic terrorist
attacks to which the Bush administration has devoted so much
The argument that Bush failed is an easy one to make, and it will
provide the DNC and progressives particularly with an opening to press
the advantage already created by high energy prices and comparisons
between the wars in Iraq and Vietnam. The DNC now must determine how
it will leverage this temporary opportunity into a long-term movement,
advancing the argument that a larger and more activist government is a
positive thing -- and that the Democratic Party can deliver it.