Farewell, Great Society

Bush's big post-Katrina speech may have sounded liberal, but his reconstruction plan could set back liberalism for years to come.

| Mon Sep. 19, 2005 3:00 AM EDT

If you didn't know who was speaking, President Bush's speech in New Orleans last Thursday, on post-Katrina reconstruction, might have sounded like that of a New Deal liberal. Discussing the "deep, persistent poverty" in New Orleans and elsewhere that had come into sharp focus during coverage of the hurricane's aftermath, Bush declared, sounding for all the world like Lyndon Johnson, "We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action"—and went on to promise some $200 billion in federal money to rebuild the region. Writing in the New Republic, David Kusnet, a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, noted that the parts of Bush's speech on poverty "could have been cribbed from the liberal sociologist William Julius Wilson." Conservatives were no less alarmed: John Podhoretz, wrote in the New York Post that Bush's speech "ignor[ed] the small-government sensitivities of conservatives in favor of a grand set of proposals that, had Bill Clinton delivered it, would be receiving hosannas today from The New York Times."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Of course, a little context shows the speech for what it was: pure damage control. Spending will be driven towards political ends, rather than towards alleviating hardship among, say, the 30 percent of former New Orleans residents living below the poverty line. The day of Bush's speech, the Washington Post found a shaken Republican leadership calculating that "the only way to regain public confidence after the stumbling early response to the disaster is to spend whatever it takes to rebuild the region." Earlier in the week, an administration aide described the White House's plan to regain its political footing to Time: "Nothing can salve the wounds like money." The Post had already reported that Bush's top political strategist, Karl Rove was heading up the reconstruction effort to carry out a twofold goal: "[P]rovide a quick federal response that comports with Bush's governing philosophy, and prevent Katrina from swamping his second-term ambitions on Social Security, taxes and Middle East democracy-building."

On the merits, no one would mistake the administration's relief plan for a second New Deal. Rove, reportedly, has been gathering ideas from conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. The list of right-wing schemes runs long: tax incentives for companies to invest in equipment and build structures (a rehash of Jack Kemp's failed "empowerment zones" for urban areas); school vouchers for children displaced by the hurricane; "worker recovery accounts" for evacuees; opening up more federally protected coastal areas for oil-drilling; an urban homestead act; and exempting post-Katrina reconstruction workers from a federal law that guarantees a "prevailing wage." In many ways, the Katrina effort will be a laboratory for half-baked and never-tested conservative ideas. Paid for, of course, by tax cuts—Heritage has already suggested suspending the estate tax for any millionaires killed by Katrina. Not to mention the fact that companies with White House ties are now lining up for reconstruction contracts.

The ideas being tossed about, meanwhile, pointedly do not include time-tested liberal anti-poverty measures as temporarily expanding Medicaid to cover those left uninsured by Katrina, suspending the recently-passed bankruptcy reform bill—a law which will make it tougher for those left bankrupt by Katrina to clear their debts—or expanding the Section 8 housing voucher program to help the newly homeless. (To tackle the housing problem, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is setting up trailer parks, the same sort of parks used after Hurricane Charley hit Florida in 2004, in which many evacuees still live.) In all likelihood, the Republican congressional leadership will craft a reconstruction passage with enough "poison pills" in it to draw Democratic opposition—as was the case with a union-busting provision slipped into the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002—and use reconstruction as a wedge issue next election. Yes, in theory, some of the Bush administration's grand experiments for tackling poverty could end up working; during the Great Depression, after all, Franklin Roosevelt's approach was also to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. But it's hard to believe that policies aimed at enriching friends and providing political cover would make any productive headway on poverty.

Indeed, while the president may have sounded like a liberal, his party's "big-government" approach to Katrina will likely do very real damage to Great Society programs. On Saturday, Bush said of the program's cost: "You bet it's going to cost money. But I'm confident we can handle it. It's going to mean that we're going to have to cut unnecessary spending." The problem is that, as with spending cuts in the past, that extra money will likely come out of other anti-poverty programs. Indeed, despite the fact that the Republican Party has increased federal spending dramatically over the past four years—including a 36 percent increase in non-defense, domestic spending since 2001—it's worth noting that anti-poverty programs, which make up only a tiny share of the federal budget, have consistently suffered painful cuts. The congressional budget resolution passed in May, for instance, contained a $23 billion cut in domestic discretionary programs for 2006, including likely cuts in housing assistance and food stamps. In dollar terms, this is a pittance, and certainly won't reduce the projected $506 billion on-budget deficit in any meaningful way—especially since Congress later passed a $286.4 billion highway bill with a record 6,371 frivolous pork-barrel "special projects." But cutting heating assistance and housing vouchers does have real effects on people's lives. For all his inspiring talk, that's something the president just doesn't seem to get.

Bush's approach holds another danger for liberalism, too. In all likelihood, the Katrina relief effort will very much resemble the failed reconstruction effort in Iraq, in which crony contractors have siphoned off billions of taxpayer dollars and still made little tangible progress. (Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that the effort to provide basic social services is faltering even in Najaf, one of the safest cities in Iraq.) Ultimately, a failed and corruption-ridden effort in New Orleans could undermine public trust in government, which could well be a mortal blow for liberalism. During the Clinton years, Democrats worked hard to dispel Ronald Reagan's notion that "government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem." According to a January Pew Press poll, public trust in government actually rose during the Clinton administration, while an increasing number of Americans favored more aid for the needy. (Even the number of Republicans who thought "government is almost always wasteful and inefficient" dropped from 74 percent to 60 percent between 1994 and 2000.)

Since 9/11, however, that trend has slowed or even reversed: A recent CBS poll found that "trust in government to do what's right" had dropped from 40 percent in 2004 to 29 percent after Katrina. CBS noted that those numbers have not risen above 50 percent since the mid-1970s. During that period, of course, Richard Nixon—another relentlessly partisan president who managed to spend billions on ostensibly liberal big-government schemes in order to box out Democrats—managed to shred America's faith in government, and in the process helped usher in a conservative revolution. Perhaps that was Bush's idea all along.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.