"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

Republican agenda is Over
By Eleanor Clift
Updated: 4:07 p.m. ET Sept. 9, 2005

Sept. 9, 2005 - It feels like we're back in a political campaign with the White House shifting blame to local and state Democratic officials for the shamefully slow response to hurricane Katrina's devastation. You can fault all levels of government, but the federal government is the last line of defense, and it was clear by the day after the storm struck that this was a regional disaster with national implications for the country's economic and social well-being.

President Bush has worked so hard to not repeat the mistakes of his father, especially the senior Bush's lackadaisical response to Florida's Hurricane Andrew, which helped cost him re-election. Former president Bush was never able to reconnect with the American people despite such heroically comic efforts as reading aloud a talking point his handlers had given him:

Such are the pitfalls of the Oedipal relationship that the seeds of the son's downfall may have arrived in the same blast of wind and rain. President Bush's disapproval rating now stands at 52 percent, and two in three Americans give him a thumbs down on handling hurricane relief, according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The national survey also finds Americans are "depressed, angry and very worried about the economic consequences of the disaster." With gas prices spiraling and an unnecessary war draining billions from the Treasury, Bush's inadequacies are glaringly obvious, from incompetence to insensitivity. The credibility gap that emerged on Iraq has widened to a chasm with the hurricane aftermath. The media has turned a corner as well, with reporters on the scene in New Orleans liberated to say the emperor has no clothes.

At the heart of the problem is Bush's disdain for government. His first director of FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Administration) was his Texas buddy Joseph Allbaugh, who described the then-cabinet level agency as "an oversized entitlement program." Allbaugh, with Bush's blessing, proceeded to downsize FEMA, and when he left he tapped for his successor his college roommate, Michael Brown, FEMA's general counsel and former head of the International Arabian Horse Association, a man with questionable credentials for disaster management. Bush's remark, "You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie," will live on in the annals of Bushisms—especially after Brown was removed from Katrina operations and sent back to Washington on Friday. For believers in the grand unified theory of conspiracy, Allbaugh now lobbies FEMA on behalf of Halliburton, the administration's gravy train of choice.

If there's an upside to Katrina, it's that the Republican agenda of tax cuts, Social Security privatization and slashing government programs is over. It may be too much to predict an upsurge of progressive government, but the environment and issues of poverty, race and class are back on the nation's radar screen. The proper role for government will be debated as we move toward the next presidential election. "Nobody is for smaller government when you're in the middle of a hurricane or a flood," says former Louisiana senator John Breaux. An e-mail I received from a NEWSWEEK reader says if somebody had tried to withdraw a feeding tube from a brain-damaged woman at the Superdome, Bush would have sent in the Marines, a poke at the president's hasty return to Washington during the Terri Schiavo episode compared with his halting response to Katrina.

Even some Republicans agree with Hillary Clinton that FEMA should be restored to stand-alone status as a government agency rather than being wedged into the giant bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security. The merger has never been a happy one, with agency officials still squabbling over wearing jackets emblazoned with FEMA or DHS.  President Clinton rebuilt FEMA during his presidency, and Jamie Lee Witt, the Arkansan who led the agency, won praise from Republicans as well as Democrats for his cool and caring competence. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco has brought in Witt to help her with the recovery and reconstruction, a move that underscores the partisan animosity that has taken hold in the wake of the bungled relief efforts.

Bill Clinton understands the impact of a disaster. His inability to cope with an influx of Cuban refugees in 1980 contributed to his defeat as governor. He recovered and came back to win again. Clinton, who toured the Houston Astrodome with former president Bush, must have been aghast when Barbara Bush mused how many of the people being housed "were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." We've gone from compassionate conservatism to Marie Antoinette. As much as the Bushes disparaged Clinton over the years, they want him nearby as a human shield to show they're capable of reaching out beyond the narrow confines of class and partisan politics. The irony of a Republican president now looking to the credibility of the last Democrat in the White House to maintain his standing reveals the extent to which Bush has fallen politically.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

Democrats have to play their cards right. They've been handed the hand of the decade and if they play it well the era of irresponsible government will come to an end quickly. They must defeat Roberts. If they don't (and they won't), they'll be the minority party for as far as the eye can see. The GOP and Bush are very, very weak and it's time to take advantage of that weakness and destroy both. Giving Bush a win at this point will give him badly needed strength and that's the last thing they should do. The long term damage of conservatism will take decades to undo. One man must be sacrificed.