Politics & Policy

Post-Katrina Doublethought

The war against stable thought blazes on, the objective being to put the blame on the Bush administration for what happened in New Orleans.

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times personalizes even further. The administration has a “tax policy . . . dominated by the toweringly selfish Grover Norquist–who has been quoted as saying: ‘I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.’” You would think that Mr. Friedman would leave a little place in life for hyperbole–what would he do with the political poets who speak of the “end” of hunger and disease? But he hangs onto the metaphor: “Mr. Norquist is the only person about whom I would say this: I hope he owns property around the New Orleans levee that was never properly finished because of a lack of tax dollars. I hope his basement got flooded.” Planted axiom: the unrepaired levee in New Orleans is the result of a shortage of federal dollars.

Across that editorial page we have the argument placed a little differently. Not that Maureen Dowd will neglect an opportunity to anthropomorphize Katrina. No, she explains, the tragedy was the result of the Bush political family, Dick Cheney being the next in line. What was he doing when Katrina struck? He was “reportedly . . . shopping for a $2.9 million waterfront estate in St Michael’s”–which is a “retreat in the Chesapeake Bay where Rummy”–the Secretary of Defense–”has a weekend home.”

“As the water recedes,” Dowd explains, “more and more decaying bodies will testify to the callous and stumblebum administration response to Katrina’s rout of 90,000 square miles of the South.” Another planted axiom. It is that the Bush Administration, to return to the language of Mr. Friedman, “has engaged in a tax giveaway since 9/11 that has had one underlying assumption: There will never be another rainy day.”

The gravamen against Bush becomes plain: The Bush administration insisted “on cutting more taxes, even when that has contributed to incomplete levees and too small an army to deal with Katrina, Osama, and Saddam at the same time.”

The proposition that the Federal Government under George W. Bush has been shortchanging welfare is in astonishing conflict with the figures. Under Bush, federal spending increases have been at the fastest rate in 30 years. Non-defense discretionary spending under Bush has grown by 35.7 percent, the highest rate of federal government growth since the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson.

Again, the planted axiom is that the New Orleans levee has been for years a national pustule that George Bush refused to lance because he didn’t want to drain the money needed by Dick Cheney to buy his waterfront estate. If New Orleans was conspicuous for its vulnerability, why hadn’t the city’s articulate mayor, or his fellow Democrat the articulate governor, said something about it? Why did it not figure in the demands of the Democratic party at its convention in Boston? How explain the silence on the subject of candidate John Kerry?

It is tempting to weigh directly the cost of repairing the levee, and the size of the tax cuts. But what is going to pay for all the ounces of prevention we could contingently use on all the frontiers of national vulnerability? To single out the levee is on the order of blaming the destruction of the Twin Towers on the architects who situated them where they were. The first-level threat to America is a nuclear bomb, then biological and chemical weapons. What preemptive precautions should be taken against the development of such weaponry? What Republicans are objecting to federal expenses on those fronts?

We have been promised reports on Katrina from almost every official body, legislative and executive. It diminishes confidence in purposive thought to lose oneself in polemical theater. Grover Norquist uses his own language. But he could be using that of John Adams, who warned that the government seeks to turn every contingency into an excuse for amassing power in itself. Or that of Woodrow Wilson, who said that the history of liberalism is the history of man’s efforts to restrain the growth of government. If New Orleans is a land doomed by nature, then nature’s reach needs to be tamed, or else yielded to. The critics have not yet charged that movement away from New Orleans was prohibited by George Bush.

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