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Monday, September 19, 2005

American Tsunami II

On Thursday night, George Bush began the most concerted, most aggressive, most politically necessary exercise in damage control in the five years of his presidency. In full shirtsleeves mode, the president damn near marched across a verdant patch of Jackson Square in the sodden, saddened city of New Orleans and announced the start of as close to a Marshall Plan as we are likely to see in the recovery of the Gulf Coast.

The president spoke in broad strokes and general principles; he was late to take up his role as national clarifier, but by all accounts it was an effective speech, even, in some ways, a departure from the usual scripted blather. A president ill at ease with disciplining others fell on his sword Thursday night, accepting the responsibility for the disastrously haphazard initial response to the Katrina catastrophe. He went on, drilling down to get to the kernel of grand initiatives about to be unleashed: a Gulf Opportunity Zone spanning the three most affected states: Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi; and an Urban Homestead Act, by which tracts of federal land would be ceded to the survivors of Katrina free of charge, under condition of their building new homes on the sites.

The president had already committed upwards of $60 billion in immediate relief, with billions more certainly on the way. Somehow, from somewhere, the figure of $200 billion began to make the rounds of the media in the days after Bush's address. John Snow, the treasury secretary, dismissed that amount as errant, presumptious conjecture in an interview aired Saturday on Bloomberg News. And who could say for sure, with things unfolding on the ground on a daily basis -- and the hurricane season only half over?

But such ambitious ventures have foundered on the rocks of reality before, more often than not about something related to where the money goes and how widely the money gets to where it needs to go. The Sept. 12 Wall Street Journal Online reported that the Bush administration "is importing many of the contracting practices blamed for spending abuses in Iraq" to the Gulf Coast rebuilding effort, likely to be the biggest rebuilding effort in U.S. history.

"The first large-scale contracts related to Hurricane Katrina, as in Iraq, were awarded without competitive bidding, and using so-called cost-plus provisions that guarantee contractors a certain profit regardless of how much they spend," the Journal reported. With heavy hitters like Fluor and Bechtel aboard, can Halliburton be far behind? Probably not.

The administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, and the prospect for more damage if and when Tropical Storm Rita metastasizes into a full-blown hurricane itself, has led to more sharp reaction (read: piling on). The AP reported that Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, the failed tandem of the 2004 presidential election, weighed in.

Kerry took aim with remarks he delivered at an address at Brown University. He said former FEMA Director and political suicide Michael Brown was to Hurricane Katrina “what Paul Bremer is to peace in Iraq; what George Tenet is to slam dunk intelligence ... what George Bush is to 'Mission Accomplished’ and 'Wanted Dead or Alive.’ ... The bottom line is simple: The 'we’ll do whatever it takes’ administration doesn’t have what it takes to get the job done.”

Edwards said Katrina and its aftermath made it clear that poverty is not a past-tense issue. “If the Great Depression brought forth Hoovervilles, these trailer towns may someday be known as Bushvilles,” Edwards told an audience at the Center for American Progress, a liberal D.C. think tank.

Kerry and Edwards' comments can't just be dismissed as the reflexive complaints of the guys who lost the election. At this point, their mistakes during the campaign pale in comparison with the Bushies' errors of judgment. Kerry and Edwards are in the slow process of regaining their bona fides; Sen. Hillary Clinton is in the process of slowly, quietly cultivating her own.

And one of the recovery efforts soon to be fully under way is that for the Republicans, the party with the most political damage to rebound from, and the most to lose in the midterm elections about thirteen-odd months from now.

No amount of effort from the spin merchants on the Potomac is liekly to change the popular perception -- present since Sept. 11 and recently confirmed in several opinion polls -- that the Bush administration and its proxies were asleep at the switch, again.

The American tsunami is proving to have all the characteristics of an artichoke, with the situation getting more and more serious, and more complex, as the layers of the initial tragedy fall away to reveal something heavier and scarier underneath. Tropical Storm Rita is brewing just outside the Gulf of Mexico, loitering with intent around the Florida Keys. It's frightening already to think about the worst that could happen on two fronts: from a storm that caught people unawares, and a governmental bureaucracy sporadically able to cope with the unexpected.

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