Saturday, August 20, 2016

GOP: "Government is the problem. Vote Republican so we can prove it."

Photo by AP.
A big serious read at the Progress Pond, Martin's perpetually-in-development replacement site for the BooMan Tribune (update: now at the Tribune too), takes that familiar joke and turns it into very convincing theory, in terms of the way the major US political parties understand their role as political institutions inside the institutions of government:
Taken as a whole, the Republican Party has, ever since its takeover by the conservative movement, done more than any foreign ideologues can ever hope to do to erode faith in the goodness of the American establishment. They’ve done this partly by being very bad at governing, but my focus here is on their messaging. During much of the latter Bush Era, the Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress, and they had a friendly Supreme Court. They ought to have been able to argue that under their leadership the federal government was finally functioning as it should. But, even if this had been plausible based on their record, they could never have done it because their whole machine is geared to deride the tyrannically inefficiency of government. What they did instead was to blame their own failures on the very institutions they controlled, and on the media for never giving them a fair shake.
I'd add that one of the effects of Republican propaganda and its amplification in the media, especially the aggressively "both-sides" media like CNN and the Washington Post, is to alienate or estrange the public from an understanding of what it is government institutions actually do, beyond that Schoolhouse Rock sense of how a bill becomes law—portraying it as monstrous, distant, arbitrary, somewhere writing uncountable volumes of crazed regulations, as opposed to all the cops, nurses, social workers, scientists, inspectors, and so on spending their days identifying common problems and solving them. To the point where they might deny that an agency they have positive contact with is really part of government at all, like that famous constituent who told Bob Inglis (R-SC) to "keep your government hands off my Medicare", or the complaint of George W. Bush suggesting that Social Security didn't need to be administered,
they want the federal government controlling the Social Security like it’s some kind of federal program. We understand differently though. You see, it’s your money not the government’s money.
(Making not only the comical goof in the bolded phrase but also seriously misunderstanding the whole basis of Social Security, which is that it's a social insurance program into which we pay monthly premiums, not a forced savings program like the Singapore Central Provident Fund.)

This craziness is what leads eventually to things like this week's kerfuffle over the question of whether President Obama should or shouldn't break his summer vacation to visit the flood emergency in southern Louisiana, even though Governor John Bel Edwards made it clear in various forums (I heard it on NPR but can't find a link any more) that he'd prefer Obama to wait a week or two rather than put the state to the expense and trouble of hosting a presidential visit just at the moment.

What makes it an issue is, of course, the fact that George W. Bush was on the 28th day of his summer vacation at his Texas ranch when Hurricane Katrina struck, on Monday August 29 2005, and felt rather criticized for not going back to Washington immediately, and ended up going back to work two days earlier than planned, on the Wednesday, taking advantage of Air Force 1 to fly over the storm-ravaged parts of Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama, where he peered out of the porthole to assess the damage, while a photographer attempted to capture his concern.

"It's totally wiped out," he told aides at one point. Photo via Blatherskite.
"Huge mistake," the former president said of the photograph, adding that it made him look “detached and uncaring.”
“It's always my fault,” Bush added in regards to the incident that was later viewed as a massive communications debacle. “I mean I was the one who should have said, A, don't take my picture, B, let's land in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, C, let's don't even come close to the area. Let's - the next place to be seen is in Washington at a command center. I mean, it was my fault.”  (CNN, November 2010)
Therefore, by the law of equal and opposite bothsiderism, President Obama should be denounced for not returning sooner from his summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard, where he has spent an entire week enjoying the beach, golf, local restaurants, and socializing, as reported in the Vineyard Gazette, which doesn't neglect to mention his phone calls with FEMA administrator Craig Fugate and Governor Edwards.

The thing is, Bush's long vacation and the porthole photograph really weren't the problem. Bush's first and maybe most serious Katrina mistake took place more than five years before the storm began to form, when he treated the hiring of his FEMA staff as a patronage matter:
Spencer S. Hsu wrote in the September 9, 2005, Washington Post that "Five of eight top Federal Emergency Management Agency officials came to their posts with virtually no experience in handling disasters and now lead an agency whose ranks of seasoned crisis managers have thinned dramatically since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"FEMA's top three leaders -- Director Michael D. Brown, Chief of Staff Patrick J. Rhode and Deputy Chief of Staff Brooks D. Altshuler -- arrived with ties to President Bush's 2000 campaign or to the White House advance operation, according to the agency. Two other senior operational jobs are filled by a former Republican lieutenant governor of Nebraska and a U.S. Chamber of Commerce official who was once a political operative."
The real problem was the entire government's incompetence and lack of preparation, especially FEMA, and its inability to work with the Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco (who was hardly blameless herself), and Bush's lack of awareness ("Heck of a job, Brownie") that there was a problem. As the extraordinary devastation of the storm came clear to the public, the inability to evacuate New Orleans, the nursing home patients abandoned in their beds, the bodied uncollected in the streets, the deadly atmosphere of the Superdome without food or washing facilities, the lack of coordination and slowness of the response, along with the collapse of local government and violence of the police, that image of Bush (not looking "detached and uncaring", just utterly blank and unable to focus) came to symbolize the failure at all levels.

The difference with the Obama administration is that it knows what it's doing, and everybody knows it does, since Hurricane Irene in 2011. The institutions of government are generally competent now, as they generally have been in Democratic administrations but not Republicans ones since government-hating movement conservatives took over the GOP. (The flooding in Louisiana isn't nearly as catastrophic as the breaching of the levees in 2005 were, either, as far as that goes, but it's certainly pretty bad.) Please let this be a lesson, not about presidential vacations, but about preparation and seriousness.

And the reasons we need a government at all, not as some alien force beyond us, but as the organized phase of ourselves, the republic, accomplishing the common work we need to accomplish.

Also see Steve M, where I drafted a paragraph in comments, and this wonderful old post on Modoc County, California, from Tom Hilton.

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