September 18, 2005

Homeland Insecurity: Why Dubya Will Not Recover This Time

As America struggles to contend with the broad devastation wrought by Katrina and her aftermath, one thing has become clear: the Bush administration is in deep trouble and on its political back heel, struggling with the storm of criticism and anger being directed at it from all sides. Over the past five years, Mr. Bush and his cabinet have been extremely adept at deflecting criticism of their policies and performance. But Katrina has dramatically changed the political landscape for the administration in the blink of an eye. We should certainly not underestimate the administration’s ability to emerge resilient from any political crisis. But this time the challenges look insurmountable and Bush will never fully recover.

The storm and its dire consequences have brought into sharp question all aspects of the administration’s domestic and foreign policy agendas. At root is the unease felt by all Americans, liberals and conservatives alike, about the appalling failure of the federal government to respond effectively during the first week following Katrina’s deadly rampage through the Gulf Coast region. Beyond FEMA head Michael Brown—an obvious political crony in the wrong place at the wrong time—the facts are still out regarding the degree to which the federal government’s shocking stutter steps resulted from inadequate planning, inadequate leadership, inadequate execution, or some dreadful combination of the three. Yet, to all who watched the events unfold, it is clear that the federal government’s failure to react—whatever its nature or causes—is inexcusable. How could the most powerful nation in the world not respond effectively to save its own citizens from a foreseen disaster once it was clear that state and local “first responders” were overwhelmed? And how could the Bush administration—so brash and self-congratulatory about its leadership—been caught so badly off guard?

Anyone worried about the security of the American homeland in the wake of a wide scale catastrophe—and we all have been following 9/11—is seriously concerned about the federal government’s preparedness and ability to execute after the Katrina debacle. What if, instead of a hurricane, a densely populated region of the country was hit with a major terrorist attack? What if 5-10 Million people needed to be relocated and not just 500,000? In spite of the grand promises, billions of dollars spent, and significant resources deployed into Iraq and the Middle East, a pervasive sense of doubt now clouds the reliability of the administration and its policies directed to homeland security.

The American public’s faith in the wisdom of our involvement in Iraq was already in steady decline. Having grown cynical about the administration’s justifications for involving us in Iraq in the first instance, more and more Americans had begun to question Bush’s handling of the ongoing occupation, and the costs to American society of this ongoing involvement. With growing unease regarding the unpopularity of the war around the world, and the prospect that our practice of aggressive military preemption is increasing the pool of extremist American enemies, even staunch conservatives have begun questioning Bush on his Iraq policy. Perhaps the last benefit of the doubt being extended to Bush regarding Iraq was that this effort was, somehow, helping to keep Americans safe at home. There has not been another major attack on American soil since 9/11 and several efforts had been foiled since then. Enter Katrina. Not an unexpected terror attack, but an act of nature which was being tracked for days before it touched down on American soil. Was a zero sum game at work, such that the resources deployed to Iraq the Middle East were unavailable for levee repair and contingency planning for what experts and officials long knew was the Gulf Coast’s vulnerability to a Category 3 or higher hurricane? Did the political prioritization accorded the War in Iraq at all levels render the federal government less capable of responding adequately once it was clear that state and local “first responders” were overwhelmed? Serious questions regarding the administration’s foreign policy and is efforts to secure the homeland, however, are just one prong of Bush’s political dilemma following Katrina.

As if grave concerns about homeland security were not enough for Mr. Bush, immediately clear in the days after the storm was the disproportionate impact on the poor, racial minorities, and the old and infirm. Whether the administration’s inaction was fueled by animus to the poor and African Americans, or otherwise by callous indifference to their plight, is a rich topic but one beyond the scope of this commentary. The important political point flows from the predicament of those most severely impacted by Katrina before the storm even hit—and the factors causing them not to evacuate in the first instance. The realty of “two Americas” and the dry rot of ongoing race and class disparities could not have been more painfully punctuated by the storm and its aftermath.

That America owed its most vulnerable a more expeditious rescue from death and despair is beyond question. But the Gulf Coast debacle has also renewed debate about what America owes its most disadvantaged even before a major catastrophe hits. Directly in the firing line of this debate are Bush’s policies regarding tax cuts, welfare, affirmative action, social security, and social spending programs generally. Katrina has put her own thematic spin on governmental neglect of the poor, the elderly and racial minorities, viscerally connecting such neglect to death, despair, and suffering. Bush will be hard-pressed to push through his current domestic policy agenda without appearing utterly insensitive and out of touch. Does anyone expect the political leadership of the dozens of states who have absorbed the displaced residents of the Gulf Coast to doggedly support tax cuts for the wealthy and big reductions to social spending programs? What level of aid do we owe each displaced Katrina victim to help them reestablish normal lives, whether back in New Orleans or in their current places of refuge? What moral implications will such politically unavoidable aid packages have on the level of aid we accord to other disadvantaged Americans who were not affected by Katrina, but who live day-to-day in squalid conditions and on the brink of disaster?

Bush will face deep opposition from all corners, liberal or conservative, unless he significantly shifts his domestic agenda and allows less conservative approaches back into his agenda setting. Once the political stakes of its early inaction became clear to the administration, Mr. Bush has been bending over backwards to shower the storm-ravaged survivors of Katrina with resources, money and gestures of concern. In order to maintain any political currency going forward, Bush will have to extend this “generosity” more broadly to his legislative initiatives targeted to America at large. He simply cannot continue to ‘drown the federal government in a bath tub,’ as his tax policy advisor Grover Norquist once suggested, without severe political fallout.

Regardless of the underlying merit, the administration is reduced thematically to this no-win position: “We did not fail only poor, black and elderly Americans in New Orleans, we failed all Americans and it was a direct consequence of our brand of conservatism.” Katrina has dealt the Bush administration a bigger political blow than any Democrat, leftist filmmaker or terrorist ever could. Much of the faith that conservatives and moderate liberals have put into the Bush administration thus far is based on the sense that Bush not only cares about keeping America and Americans well protected, but that his no-nonsense governance style was best suited to doing so. A president whose popularity, power and excesses were premised on his ability to keep America safe has been fatally exposed. Even an unprecedented “acceptance of responsibility” from Mr. Bush will not save him. Only compromise on his policy agenda during the remainder of his second term will.


Duane R. Valz is an Emeryville-based technology attorney and holds a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law.

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