Liberals see an opening

The money is beginning to flow into Louisiana and Mississippi, Washington is crawling with folks looking for a piece of it, and just about everyone is working overtime to figure out how to advance their political agendas by linking them to Katrina relief.

The money is beginning to flow into Louisiana and Mississippi, Washington is crawling with folks looking for a piece of it, and just about everyone is working overtime to figure out how to advance their political agendas by linking them to Katrina relief.

There have been hints from the likes of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) that the difficulty attending the response to Katrina simply proves that the whole federal system is outmoded, and liberal commentators from one end of the country to the other are applauding the president’s apparent decision to begin acting more like Lyndon Johnson than Ronald Reagan in mobilizing government resources in the wake of the disaster.

Meanwhile, in one of the least attractive attempts to gain political points we have witnessed in recent years, some Democrats and many of their most ideological allies are arguing that the post-Katrina suffering happened not because the relief effort was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the flood or that the folks coordinating things were less competent than one might have hoped but because the effort was run by malevolent Bush administration officials who misdirected resources to keep needed assistance from the poor and the black who made up the bulk of the flood’s victims.

The outrageousness of the charge matters little in a world in which facts don’t matter all that much. Indeed, by last weekend various polls reflected the effectiveness of these attacks and the incredible gullibility of many Americans. The so-called “racial divide” has widened, with truly significant numbers of black Americans actually buying into the idea, and The Washington Post is already reporting rather smugly that all of this has set back Republican attempts to woo minority voters by rubbing salt into old wounds.

Bush has been put on the defensive in part because the initial response to the flooding in New Orleans was slow and perhaps incompetent and in part because while he and his folks were trying to deal with the tragedy his opponents were free to devote their talents and energy to press conferences and coordinated attacks on his every move. The fact that a Democratic mayor and governor contributed to the problem has been all but ignored as Democrats and their media friends pile on.

The president, meanwhile, is working to change the subject. His taking responsibility for the shortcomings of his underlings was a way of asserting that he was also taking charge and that the reconstruction will be his show. That will work only if what he does during the next few months makes sense and survives partisan and media scrutiny.

Bush’s problem is that in today’s political world he has no margin for error and the tools at his disposal are blunt instruments ill suited to a surgical operation. He adopted what had originally been a Democratic demand after Sept. 11 that he create a Department of Homeland Security and came up with something that is pretty good at harassing air travelers but not worth much when it comes to dealing with real problems.

The president seems perfectly willing to throw bucketfuls of money at Louisiana and Mississippi regardless of the effectiveness of such a strategy or its long-term budgetary consequences because he knows that he will be judged by his critics on how much he spends as well as by the results of that spending. They are already suggesting, of course, that the hundred or two billions that may end up in the region won’t be enough.

They also see this as an opportunity not to rebuild the levees and infrastructure but to get a conservative president to buy into a liberal scheme to remake society and therefore the folks who make up that society. The belief that Washington can remake not just our cities and towns but the people who live in them has always been a core belief of liberals in this country, and they are hot to do it in an area where in a sense the slate has been wiped clean.

It won’t work, of course, as what they and the president really seem to be contemplating is turning New Orleans into an analog of the District of Columbia, with Congress debating how the schools will be run and how to reshape everything from the design of the local healthcare system to traffic patterns.

The French Quarter may survive all this, but when it’s all over we are likely to have spent more money than ever in our history to create another mess for future generations to clean up. If that happens, it will be a tragedy far more serious than what we have seen on television over the course of the last few weeks.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).