By William Fisher
The speech President George W. Bush delivered in New Orleans last evening had the phony ring of a second-term president driven by a single goal: to rebuild what is left of his tattered legacy.
The president still contends he is a ‘compassionate conservative’, yet conservatives in his own will find little joy in his huge spending proposals for rebuilding the Gulf Coast. In that sense, his speech could just as well have been made by Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson. No legacy there.
Maybe the ‘compassionate’ part will be about race, which he mentioned briefly as the fault of slavery. But for five years the Bush Administration has contorted itself to avoid even using the word. Save for his efforts to bring more African Americans into the Republican Party, the President has none nothing -- zero, zippo – to stimulate an urgently needed national conversation about race. No legacy there.
Or maybe it was about poverty, another toxic word in the Bush lexicon. Tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans were going to stimulate economic growth and the trickle-down jobs were going to make the poorest of us less poor. Yet the statistics show us that during a time when the rich got richer, jobs for the poor disappeared and more people got poor and the poor got even poorer. More people in America live below the poverty line now than on the day Mr. Bush took office. Yet the president uttered not a single word about rolling back any of these tax cuts. No legacy there either.
Health care, too, got a passing nod in the president’s speech. He is going to bring health insurance to the people of the Gulf Coast while millions more Americans have none. The Administration has ignored Medicaid, the only vehicle available to provide health care for the poor, and used his bully pulpit to hawk private accounts as Social Security’s contribution to his ‘ownership society’. The president’s proposals were roundly rejected by the people, and he is now in the process of reducing critical funding for Medicaid. No legacy there.
After 9/11, the President correctly took on the Taliban and Al Queda in Afghanistan. But then he diverted resources from there to Iraq to wage a ‘war of choice’ – on the cheap – without enough troops, without any meaningful post-conflict planning, and on shamefully spurious grounds that kept shifting like sand castles. The result has been an Afghanistan now famous as the world’s leading supplier of opium and an Iraq that is drowning in the blood of its own people and ours. No legacy there.
In his defining bullhorn moment, standing with a firefighter atop the wreckage of the World Trade Center, the president promised to make the nation safer from terrorists. The jury is still out on that pledge.
But as for making us safer from natural terror, the jury’s verdict came two weeks ago. The unimaginably huge and bureaucratic caricature called the Department of Homeland Security was headed by a smart guy with no national security experience whatever, grossly under-funded, disorganized, and populated with political operatives who helped the president prevail in the 2004 election. Its dysfunctionality has been documented in report after report. Four years after 9/11, the radios used by first responders along the entire Gulf Coast still didn’t work.
But the bottom line for the DHS is that it ignored all credible warnings of an impending disaster until it was far too late. Did someone forget to tell the president? Or was he told and decided to take no action? Maybe we’ll never know.
Mr. Bush has been called our ‘MBA President’. All MBAs are taught the art of delegation. But they are also supposed to be taught the two accompanying principles of delegation: Hire the best and the brightest as your managers and monitor their performance or, as Ronald Reagan famously said, “Trust but verify.”
Mr. Bush has been long on trust and virtually absent on monitoring and verification. To be realistic, the president cannot be expected to monitor our huge government – no one person could, MBA or not. But is it not now reasonable to question the competence, independence and imagination of those he hired to advise him? We know they are superb at spin; but are they any good at anything else? Like having the courage to warn the president that Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on the Gulf Coast -- and on his presidency!
Mr. Bush was right to accept responsibility for the government’s response to Katrina, but his admission of any mistake is being hailed by his supporters as some kind of epiphany. The truth is that, beyond getting ‘Brownie’ to fall on his sword, the president ran out of people to blame. A robust response is his job.
Many in the TV punditocracy are now calling Katrina Mr. Bush’s ‘second bullhorn moment’. Dick Morris, political guru, went so far as so say on television last night that Katrina was a blessing in disguise for giving him an opportunity to save his second term.
This is a wildly absurd assertion. The reason is that fewer and fewer people in this country now believe that Mr. Bush can actually deliver. To do so, he will need to cajole Congress to fund his grandiose promises. And Congress is acutely aware of the political price they could pay in 2006 by further mortgaging our great-grandchildren with an even larger deficit.
All the polling data suggests this is not going to happen. In short, the president has lost his credibility. Which makes him not merely a lame duck second-termer, but a paraplegic.