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John, Don't Go

Monday, 01 September 2008 12:53 By Paul Krugman, The New York Times | name.

John, Don
"George Bush, hours after Cuba had offered 1,100 doctors for Katrina victims, at a time when people were literally drowning in the streets of New Orleans." (Caption Text/Photo: lefti.blogspot.com)

    It's an ill wind that blows nobody good. Three years after Hurricane Katrina, another storm is heading for the Gulf Coast - and this has given Republicans a reason to cancel President Bush's scheduled appearance at their national convention. The party can thus avoid reminding voters that the last man they placed in the White House did such a heckuva job that he scored the highest disapproval ratings ever recorded.

    Instead, Mr. Bush is playing Commander in Chief. On Sunday morning the White House Web site featured photos of the president talking to Gulf state governors about Hurricane Gustav while ostentatiously clutching a red folder labeled "Classified." On Monday, instead of speaking at the convention, reports suggest that Mr. Bush will address the nation about the storm.

    And a report on Politico.com suggested that John McCain might give a speech "from the devastation zone if the storm hits the U.S. coast with the ferocity feared by forecasters."

    What's wrong with this picture?

    Let's start with that red folder. Assuming that the folder contained something other than scrap paper, is the planned response to a hurricane a state secret? Are we worried that tropical storm systems will discover our weak points? Are we fighting a Global War on Weather?

    Actually, that's not quite as funny as it sounds. Some observers have pointed out that daily briefings on preparations for Gustav, which should be coming from the Federal Emergency Management Agency - which is, you know, supposed to manage emergencies - have been coming, instead, from the U.S. military's Northern Command.

    It's not hard to see why. Top positions at FEMA are no longer held by obviously unqualified political hacks and cronies. But a recent report by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security said that the agency has made only "limited progress" in the area of "mission assignments" - that is, in its ability to coordinate the response to a crisis. So FEMA still isn't up to carrying out its principal task.

    That's no accident. FEMA's degradation, from one of the government's most admired agencies to a laughingstock, wasn't an isolated event; it was the result of the G.O.P.'s underlying philosophy. Simply put, when the government is run by a political party committed to the belief that government is always the problem, never the solution, that belief tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Key priorities are neglected; key functions are privatized; and key people, the competent public servants who make government work, either leave or are driven out.

    The political cost of Katrina shocked the Bush administration into trying to undo some of the damage at FEMA, and it's a good bet that the initial response to Gustav will be better (it could hardly be worse). But because the political philosophy responsible for FEMA's decline hasn't changed, the administration hasn't been able to reverse the agency's learned incompetence. Three years after Katrina, and a year past a Congressional deadline, FEMA still doesn't have a strategy for housing disaster victims.

    Which brings us back to the politics of the current storm.

    Earlier this year Mr. McCain, as part of his strategy of distancing himself from the current administration, condemned Mr. Bush's response to Katrina. If he'd been president at the time, he says, "I would've landed my airplane at the nearest Air Force base and come over personally."

    Um, that completely misses the point. The problem with the Bush administration's response to Katrina wasn't the president's failure to show up promptly for his photo op. It was the failure of FEMA and other degraded agencies to show up promptly with food, water and first aid.

    And let's hope that Mr. McCain doesn't jet into the disaster area in Gustav's aftermath. The candidate's presence wouldn't do anything to help the area recover. It would, however, tie up air traffic and disrupt relief efforts, just as Mr. Bush did when he flew into New Orleans to congratulate Brownie on the work he was doing. Remember the firefighters who volunteered to help Katrina's victims, only to find that their first job was to stand next to Mr. Bush while the cameras rolled?

    To be fair, Republican plans to deal with Gustav by turning their convention into a "service event," perhaps a telethon to raise funds for victims, are a good idea. So is the Obama campaign's plan to mobilize its e-mail list to send aid and volunteers. But personal, voluntary aid is no substitute for an effective public response to disaster.

    What we really need is a government that works, because it's run by people who understand that sometimes government is the solution, after all. And that seems to be something undreamed of in either Mr. Bush's or Mr. McCain's philosophy.

Last modified on Monday, 01 September 2008 13:50