Sunday, September 11, 2005

Katrina Recriminations (or the Emperor's New Clothes)

I have started this a couple of times and have never been happy with what has resulted. It started sounding too much like a rant about specific events than a rationalized assessment of what has occurred in the Gulf Coast. However, with two weeks having passed since Katrina hit, it is fair to say that all levels of government failed the people of the Gulf Coast, and especially New Orleans. But ultimately, I think the federal government has an especially shameful place in what happened.

Great stories on what happened are available from many sources, but the best piece I have found so far was in today's New York Times, which set forth a timeline of all government actions in the aftermath of Katrina. Time magazine also has an interesting piece that I think is an informative (but less than flattering) about what Bush and his advisors were doing, and what they plan to do to regain some of the public's confidence.

What these story, and the many others that have been published, leads me to conclude is that the federal government, especially, but not limited to FEMA, was simply not prepared for what happened. This is unacceptable.

Many conservatives have been pushing the idea that either the federal government couldn't act until the state of Louisiana requested their help (mostly Bush apologists) or appear to believe that the federal government acted pretty much as quickly as they could. I would place some, like Bryan from Arguing with Signposts, in this latter camp, but I believe that these thoughts springs from conservative mantra that government can never really be efficient.

This mantra is a major part in understanding why the federal government was slow to react. FEMA became a dumping ground for political hacks. They could master bureaucracy, but didn't know how to get things done. Why is this? Three reasons: 1) In the Bush administration loyalty has always been placed over competence; and 2) truly competent Republicans don't serve in government, they go into business because you can't make much money in government unless you are Joe Allbaugh; and 3) Republicans don't really believe in government, especially the federal government. The last reason is why FEMA and the administration kept waiting for requests for help, rather than springing into action and taking control of a situation that had overwhelmed the mechanisms available to the Governor of Louisiana or the Mayor of New Orleans.

In some ways the Bush Administration learned the lessons of 9/11 too well. On 9/11 and the few days afterwards, it was the local officials that made the country feel like things might be ok. The President's performance the day of the attack was hardly soothing, and until he took the bullhorn at the WTC, I think many of us were wondering if he was really up to the job.

But Katrina was a different animal. It was more massive; it overwhelmed the local and state governments in ways that 9/11 never did; New Orleans didn't have the competent government that NYC did; and finally there was no other direction to focus the anger that the public felt. 9/11 may have "change everything," but maybe it shouldn't have. I have little doubt that FEMA of the Clinton Administration would not have been sitting around waiting for a list of what each state need. It would have provided the states the list, and given them whatever they could find. They wouldn't have worried about red tape -- they would have thrust the firefighters from around the country that volunteered, even if they had passed their sexual harassment seminar yet. This is what happens when you put competent people who believe that there are somethings that only the federal government can do right.

But what will the results of this be? This is always the big question for political types, and it is probably still too early to know many of them, but I certainly think that we are facing a diminished President. The polling results are relatively clear, while he public doesn't blame him completely, they also seem to have lower confidence in his ability to do the job. The last election was about who could keep you safe -- I think there are many people who are reevaluating their answer to that question, and asking why 4 years after 9/11 our federal government could be caught so flat footed and allow a city to devolve, even briefly, like New Orleans did. The American public doesn't vote for the Mayor of New Orleans or the Governor of Louisiana, but we do vote for Presidency, so when there are failures, that is where we look for answers. And when those answers aren't satisfying, that is where we focus our blame.

Without a bogeyman for his supporters to vilify, many in the public are now wondering about those new clothes the President has strutting around in.

-- OK, so this was a little bit of a rant too, but more of a big picture one. And lest you think I am only on a partisan rant, I would point to these people from across the aisle who have also been critical of how this situation has been handled by Bush: Professor Bainbridge, Rod Dreher (and here and here), John Podhoretz, David Brooks, Dr. Steven Taylor, Robert George, Charles Krauthammer, David Frum, Bob Novak, Thoughts Online. If you read closely enough you can even make out some criticisms of Bush from Michele Malkin and Peggy Noonan. (Luckily Fred Barnes is always there to toe the line!)