This was originally written in 2005.
The post-Katrina debate has the potential to politically damage both parties, depending on how the response failure is interpreted. I see 2 possibilities, but its likely worse for the left:
1) Katrina revives a national debate on poverty, and by extension race. It is painfully clear that the suffering of the disaster was disproportionately carried by the poor and black. If this is understood as a failure of social policy, of domestic poverty-alleviation, or even worse, as a civil rights issue, than Bush and the GOP are in real trouble. Bush has no anti-poverty agenda at all. This is less because of any GOP faith in the magic of the market (Bush is pro-business, not pro-market), than W’s surrender on any serious domestic agenda at all. Tax cuts are hardly a proactive policy. Beyond that the administration has No Child Left Behind and the Medicare expansion, but these are scarcely related to the social dislocation and confusion so prominent in the televised images.
But don’t expect the GOP not try. A standard of Rove-ism is to generate 2 or 3 policy proposals as magic bullets to answer all pesky questions in an issue area (just look at W’s Texas gubernatorial bids). So Bush will at some point try to suggest that the tax cuts and NCLB were in fact aimed at alleviating exactly the kind of impoverishment we all witnessed in New Orleans. Something like this happened when Bush shoved through the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts despite 9/11. Tax cuts help growth; we need growth to fight the WoT; ergo, tax cuts help the WoT. But I bet this won’t work this time. Too much urban plight was on display for such slipperiness to work.
So the GOP may be in serious trouble if the dominant question K leaves us is, what is the state doing to help the poor? This would be the first major national discussion on poverty since the Great Society, and the GOP is not ready for it. Proposal in the mode of 1990s welfare reform will look downright stingy.
But I doubt the debate will break that way.
First, I don’t think the country cares that much about poverty alleviation, or wants to revisit racial polarization. And the hyperbolic civil rights leadership will unfortunately accelerate that return of disinterest. There is much attention at the moment. Obama will get some good air time and say some meaningful and promising things; but then Sharpton and Jesse Jackson will start in with overwrought slavery analogies. They will attract the media’s interest with their antics, and Fox will give them generous coverage to hang themselves by their own rope. Liberals like Ted Kennedy will start talking about “Marshall Plans for our cities,” and that will doom the whole thing. The Howard Dean left has been itching for this moment, but they’ll blow it in excessive rhetoric and racially loaded guilt mongering.
Second, and perhaps as a cause of the disinterest above, the right has won the fight on poverty I think. The American economy’s growth in the past 25 years has been astonishing, and it is increasingly difficult for the left to make the ‘structural causes of poverty’ argument so dear to its activists. This cherished notion will be obvious in the left’s policy recommendations. They will show no imagination at all – think ‘Marshall plans for the cities,’ vague job creation proposals, and – always, ALWAYS – more money for schools. Yawn. No one believes this stuff anymore, and suburbanites will not be taken by such language. In the wake of Jim Crow and awful rural and elderly poverty, the New Deal and Great Society seemed like good policy. But today is the age of Walmart, cheap imported goods, and illegal immigrants taking jobs Americans find beneath them. When that last point – that the business case for illegal immigration is that our poor would rather remain jobless than take jobs they cultural/socially reject – becomes common knowledge, this debate will be over for the left. It will set liberals against one another, particularly black and Hispanic leaders. Lots of un-PC remarks will be heard, similar to Vincente Fox’s, and any electoral possibilities for a serious anti-poverty agenda will evaporate as the rhetoric becomes sharper and more racialized. This is unfortunate.
2) Katrina sparks a debate on public sector competence. It is also painfully clear that the bureaucracies of New Orleans and Louisiana don’t function. The photo of dozens of NO school buses underwater will define this debate – and likely cost Nagin his job. And Democrats will be lost – perhaps not the DLC, but the lifers in the House will be downright confused. Public sector bureaucracies in the United States are wildly less efficient than anything in the private sector. We all know this which is why we loathe USPS and BMV, call our congressman rather than the actual correct agency, and avoid townhall meetings, PTAs and the like.
And the Democrats are the most important political force blocking civil service reform of the kind that Schwarzenegger and many other governors want. Out-institutionalized by Rove and W’s massive party-building efforts, the Dems are desperate to hang onto what organizational bases they have left, and public sector unions are the biggie. Hence they will end-up defending changes increasingly recognized as necessary by just about everyone in the private sector – performance-benchmarking, easier ‘hire-and-fire,’ reduced job security, the elimination of seniority advancement, tougher benefits requirements etc. Anyone who has worked in a city, state or federal agency knows of the sloth that is protected by public sector unions like the NEA or AFSCME. If that is connected to the slow movement and corruption of the public agencies in NO/LA, the debate may turn from why didn’t the feds coordinate disaster to relief, to, how do we discipline local government to be responsive to constituents?
I bet the later is a more likely outcome. Poverty is eternal – or at least we perceive to be – so it will hardly grasp us, and decades of growth and cheap imports have pushed the poverty debate toward bad individual choices, and away from societal structures. But the debate on slothful, unresponsive, surly public sector bureaucracies would be pretty new, and it is far more attractive to the middle class which dislikes government unresponsiveness.