As most of you know, Ann and I travel a fair amount. For years, we've been saying "ya know, we really ought to go to New Orleans." I guess we'll be putting that trip off for a while, if not indefinitely.
Like everybody in the world, I've been watching the TeeVee footage and reading all the commentaries, right and left. I've read all the lefties like Maureen Dowd and Molly Ivins and Frank Rich, the latter quite effectively equating the situation in New Orleans to the sinking of the Titanic: "New Orleans first-class passengers made it safely into lifeboats; for those in steerage, it was the horrifying spectacle of every man, woman and child for himself."
And I've read commentaries by typically right-leaning commentators like David Brooks, who departed from his usual endorsement of all things conservative and Republican to note that Katrina represents a "huge cultural moment," coming as it does on the heals of "a string of confidence-shaking institutional failures" like 9/11 and everything about the war in Iraq.
And I've gotten countless e-mails from my friends all over the country, who are all uniform in their scorn for the man in the White House, or Crawford, or whatever undisclosed location he happens to be holed up in this week.
All of which makes me seriously wonder what I, a mere bystander/viewer with a computer, an e-mail list -- and too much time on my hands --might constructively add to the cacophony of criticism being fired at all levels and from all directions in Katrina's wake. Well, I do have one fairly simple point to make, and I'll get to it as quickly as possible...
First, the the thing that strikes me as oddly discordant in all the punditry, both amateur and professional, is the quickness with which my philosophical and political compadres rush to lay blame for the whole cataclysm squarely at George Bush's feet. Clearly, if we're going to point fingers, we're going to need all the fingers of both our hands for this one. And a few toes maybe, too.
For example: Last night I saw some aerial footage of the flooded areas of New Orleans, and I took particular note of a shot of a vast parking lot of water-logged school buses. I frankly did not realize the significance of that image until I heard somebody on right-wing talk radio ask this morning, "why were those buses still in New Orleans? Why hadn't they been used to evacuate some of the people who wound up at the Superdome because they lacked the means to leave town?"
You'd like to think that an Enlightened Leader would have come down from on high and said, "let's use the school buses." But that leader could just as well have been the Mayor of New Orleans or the Governor of Louisiana. When the mayor of New Orleans issued the evacuation order, didn't he know that there were a lot of people in his city who lacked the necessary means to get out of town? And not all of them poor, mind you: there are plenty of people of means in New Orleans who did not own a vehicle simply because their urban lifestyle precluded the need for one.
Don't get me wrong, I've got nothing kind to say about Bush's role in all this. I tuned in when he went to New Orleans on Friday; I heard one of the impromptu speeches he made on the scene, and it occurs to me that if George Bush were somehow forced to drop the expressions "workin' hard" and "makin' progress" from his repertoire, the man whould have absolutely nothing left to say. Every time Bush opens his mouth, that's about the extent of what comes out. That's what's going to be carved on his tombstone: "Here lies a victim of the Peter Principal... but he was workin' hard and makin' progress."
The best George Bush could do was act as Cheerleader-In-Chief... which is fitting, considering that his great contribution to life during his tenure at Yale was serving on the cheer leading squad, a fact we often forget while rummaging around in his spotty National Guard records.
And while I'm at it: Gee, doesn't all this make a great advertisement for the "freedom and democracy" that W is trying to export around the world through the barrel of a gun? I can see the Public Service Announcements now: "Adopt our system and you too can have thousands of poor people starving and dying of thirst in your own streets!"
Sorta makes you wonder if the people in Iraq are seeing the footage from New Orleans on Al Jazeera and saying to each other, "look, some place has got it worse than Baghdad!"
But the real reason I don't think all the blame can be laid at George Bush's feet is because he is in fact the titular heir of a trend in governance that reaches back at least as far as Newt Gingrich's "Contract on America," or, if you prefer, all the way back to Reagan and the earliest iterations of "trickle down economics." Between Reagan and Bush 41, Gingrich, Tom Delay and now Bush 43, a conservative/Republican ideology has pretty much managed the throttles of America's engines. It should be clear to anybody viewing the footage from New Orleans that somewhere along the way, the filters through which the great wealth of this nation is supposed to trickle have gotten as clogged as the pumps in New Orleans.
Since I started writing these Screeds last year, I have clung privately to a very simplistic belief regarding the central difference between conservative/Republican political ideology and that of the liberal/Democrats: To me, it seems that the Republicans are the party of "every man for himself," while the Democrats, at their idealistic best, should be the party of "everybody pulls together."
The best the Democrats can hope for in the short term is to regain control of the Senate in 2006. From there, perhaps they can reclaim the White House in 2008. But in order to do that they are going to need a clear, simple message that both paints the Republicans into the corner of their hypocrisy and clearly defines the ideals that the Democrats hope to restore. Katrina has handed the Democrats precisely the opportunity they need to crystallize both sides of the debate.
If the Democrats (or any opposition party) are going to reverse the deteriorating trends of the past two-plus decades, they have got to adopt a simple message, one that they can say over and over again without confusion or embarrassment.
So repeat after me:
The Republicans are the party of "every man for himself." In New Orleans, we have seen the ultimate realization -- the utter moral bankruptcy -- of that ideology. Vote for Democrats, and "Let's All Pull Together."
Admittedly, it could be a hard sell. As Frank Rich pointed out, "every man for himself" worked fine for the large majority of New Orleans residents -- the roughly 80%, or 400-thousand, of the city's half-million residents who managed to load up their SUVs, fill the tanks with $2.50/gallon gasoline and head out of Dodge. But even those people had to be appalled, once they got wherever they were going, to turn on their TeeVees and see the fate they had narrowly escaped.
The political pendulum in America began swinging to the right with Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. It kept swinging right through the Clinton years ("The era of big government is over..."), and the arc accelerated with the attacks of 9/11. With Katrina and its aftermath, I think (well, hope) that history will record that the pendulum has reached the zenith of its swing to the right.
The pendulum has to start swinging back in the 2006 mid-term elections. If it doesn't, then I share the unspoken fear that a lot of people felt as they watched their TeeVee screens last week: that what we saw in New Orleans was just a dress rehearsal for the fate that awaits the rest of America after another decade or two of "compassionate conservatism."
Anyway, that's my opinion, and it should be yours, too.