Monday, September 05, 2005

Crisis of a regime, crisis of an ideology

Over the course of the last tragic week on the Gulf Coast, the inadequacy of the response of President Bush has been patent. AWOL at the outset, our leader has since shown procrastination, negligence, callousness, frivolity, and above all incompetence. Were these charges proffered only by Democrats like Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, they could be dismissed as tendentious politicking. Yet among the most biting critics have been conservative commentators. A partial list of those exposing Bush’s failures includes David Brooks, Pat Buchanan, Rod Dreher, Jonah Goldberg, John Podhoretz, Andrew Sullivan, and George Will. An August 31 editorial in the ultraconservative Manchester Union Leader stunningly nailed the president as the vessel of a "diffident detachment unsuitable for the leader of a nation facing war, natural disaster, and economic uncertainty."

To be on the spot in New Orleans made the critiques all the more effective. I think particularly of the Fox News anchor Shepard Smith. Formerly a kind of happy-go-lucky pretty boy, Smith spent five days on an interstate with some of the most desperate victims. His anguish was evident, appropriate, and inescapable. He demolished the efforts by his conservative colleagues--notably the egregious Bill O’Reilly, fresh from trashing Cindy Sheehan--to minimize the crisis.

Looking at the mostly black and poor faces, their situation dire for days on end, one could not help but say "these people are us." Amazingly, some observers, devoid of any human decency, declined to muster this minimum of sympathy. By the same token, the victims and their fate showed that there is apartheid in America. This baleful situation, the product of decades of looking the other way, cannot be permitted to continue.

Predictably enough, Karl Rove orchestrated the efforts at spin. It was revealing—and disgusting—to see the oafish Rove waddling alongside his master when he landed on the Gulf on Friday. Among the Rovian tactics was blaming the victims in tones that sometimes assumed the garb of outright racism. The mainly poor, mainly black people were, it seems, the authors of their own misfortunes. Then it was Louisiana officials that were to blame. This time swift-boating does not seem to have worked.

Of course, Bush’s advisers are counting on a shift in the news cycle to do the trick for them. Maybe Greta van Susteren and Geraldo Rivera can be dispatched once more to Aruba. Such distractions are unlikely to have the desired effect, though, for high gasoline prices will continue to focus public attention on the administration’s failures. Bush and Cheney are said to enjoy some influence with the oil companies. Will they use it to our benefit? Of course not.

All of this spin is indeed poor stuff. After 9/11 we decided as a nation that there must be a national response to such disasters. The Department of Homeland Security and FEMA notably failed to respond adequately. This failure must be laid at the door of the executive branch of the federal government. As the president conceded, the efforts by his team were "not acceptable."

Bush is now in the position of trying to sustain three endeavors at once: the hopeless war in Iraq, massive tax cuts that are pauperizing the nation, and now a crisis in our own Gulf. It is clear that at most two of these things can be attempted. Despite Dennis Hastert’s appalling comment, there is no escaping our nation’s obligation to undertake massive reconstruction in New Orleans and the Gulf. That means that either the troops must come out of Iraq, or new taxes must be imposed.

Some intone the libertarian mantra that "government is not the answer,"claiming that only private enterprise can solve out problems. Well, government was very definitely the answer in the Netherlands in 1953. After the dikes broke and thousands died, the Dutch government undertook a program of reconstruction that bids fair to last as long as anyone can foresee. Our government, not private industry, must do the same in Louisiana.

The events on our Gulf coast have triggered a crisis of regime. Bush’s approval ratings have already plummeted to depths that are unprecedented, reflecting the widespread public perception, which is indeed correct, that he is mismanaging the war in Iraq. Since the president retains—-to me inexplicably--a core of loyalists, it may be that the poll numbers will not go down much further. There has been, however, a crisis of faith among formerly staunch supporters of the president among the media and in the blogosphere. These observers are not likely soon to forgive and forget. For Bush has betrayed t h e i r cause. The conservative project is itself in danger.

At this point it is obviously difficult to say how far the erosion will go. Bush may stage some sort of comeback. He is immunized from impeachment by the horrendous prospect of a Cheney presidency. It may be that with Rehnquist’s death, the Senate will have the option of accepting one Bush nomination (Roberts) and rejecting the other (whomever that might be). Bush’s only real asset is the craven passivity of the Democrats. With Senators Biden, Clinton, and Kerry basically supporting the Iraq war, there is a lack of synch with the party’s rank and file, now firmly antiwar. Ideally, that whole leadership should be replaced.

Whatever the exact contours, Bush’s presidency is clearly a failed one. Whether he will decline to the status of a figurehead, a prisoner in the White House, is uncertain. But the swagger and autocratic assurance have fled. A fallen creature, he really is in the grip of diffident detachment.

There is more than a crisis of regime. On G-Gnome, the blogger Martin Kelly, has pointed to a pattern, perhaps best exemplified by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Up to that point it was assumed that Soviet Communism would soldier on, despite the growing fissures. In 1989 it became clear that continuation was not possible on any terms. Some on the left said that this collapse was all to the good. Now, they claimed, "true socialism" could emerge in its full splendor, no longer burdened by the Soviet caricature. Alas for them, that outcome was not to be.

The events on the Gulf Coast constitute a similar crisis for American conservatism. We may date the emergence of this outlook as a feature on the American scene to Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign of 1964. Before that time there had been general agreement with Lionel Trilling, who held that all thinking Americans (setting aside some old fogies like Russell Kirk) had acceded to the liberal worldview. Liberalism constituted the very climate of our political thought, and the only variations conceivable must occur within bounds of that climate.

Undeterred by this seeming consensus, conservative thinkers and think tanks were able to spot cracks in the liberal edifice. For example, they showed that, all too often, liberal welfare policies were worsening the plight of those they ostensibly benefited. The conservatives also elaborated the idea that untrammeled capitalism, left alone, could solve our problems. It was the rising tide that raises all boats—a most unfortunate metaphor considering what has happened.

Curiously, it was Bush himself who betrayed conservative principles. He did this, first, by his wild spending and unjustified tax cuts, and second, by embracing expansionist foreign policy adventures—-taking over foreign countries by force and calling these brutal actions nation building. Rightly, the rest of the world sees that as long as our own form of apartheid festers, we are not fit to bring the benefits of democracy to other nations.

For its part, the fiscal profligacy has blended effortlessly with the monstrous congressional culture of the pork barrel. The recently passed highway bill contains a provision to appropriate 231 million dollars for a bridge to an uninhabited island in Alaska. Will this abomination now be rescinded, and the proceeds devoted to reconstruction in the Gulf? Not likely, as pork is sacred.

Our national spending policies are gravely, grotesquely distorted. The situation of the underclass in New Orleans, so heart-wrenchingly displayed on television, has shown that too many people have been left behind. "Compassionate conservatism" has turned out to be the oxymoron that many of us have suspected it of being all along.

Here is a quotation from Martin Kelly. "Katrina has dealt a death blow to the Neo-cons. Neoconservatism has always been an ideology dependent on the global projection of national power. ...[W]hat can an ideology based on the global projection of national power do when confronted with a crisis which shows it to be nationally powerless?"

It remains to be seen whether something can be salvaged from the conservative project, or whether it will go down the tubes, like Soviet Communism in 1989. Whatever happens, our nation will not be the same after the events of August and September 2005


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