Friday night, the Bush presidency was in grave trouble.
TV reporters at the New Orleans convention center and Superdome were fairly weeping for food and water for the visibly suffering thousands, on the fifth day after Katrina hit.
Saturday, the cavalry had arrived. All day, the truckloads of troops, helicopters and relief columns moved in. By nightfall, the convention center and Superdome had been evacuated, and reporters who had been howling only hours before were cheering.
By Sunday, responsibility for the disaster was being shifted by Bush aides and media allies to the mayor of New Orleans and Louisiana Gov. Blanco. Monday, the Washington Post reported Americans did not blame President Bush for the breakdown and failure of government in New Orleans.
The sudden turnaround left the race hustlers hanging out there. They had been bellowing that Bush did not care about black people, since most of the refugees from Katrina were African-American. But, so, too, were the looters. And a visible majority of those coming to the rescue were white folks. Those who played the race card have been taking a deserved beating on national radio and cable TV. Even their Democratic allies seem to have abandoned them.
Yet, make no mistake. Summer is over for America – and George Bush. That unifying image of Bush atop the pile of debris in lower Manhattan days after 9-11 has been displaced by ugly accusations and recriminations over who lost New Orleans. Katrina has exposed the limits of federal power and the absence of a serious set of national priorities.
In New Orleans, those who relied on government – the New Orleans police, the mayor, Gov. Blanco, FEMA – suffered most. Those who relied on themselves for food, water and safety from marauding mobs of rapists and looters, with guns in their homes, fared best. Ultimately, U.S. and Guard troops had to provide the security before government agencies and volunteers could do their rescue work.
But hour-by-hour coverage of the damage done by Katrina to an area of the South as large as Britain must bring home the truth: We are a self-indulgent nation and an overextended empire.
Before Bush went off on his five-week vacation, he signed a $286 billion highway bill containing $24 billion in pork – 6,300 earmarked projects, among which was a quarter-billion-dollar bridge from Ketchikan, Alaska, population 8,000, to Gravina Island, population 50. Had half that sum been spent fortifying the levees of Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans would not be underwater today.
With a federal deficit, because of Katrina, rising toward $400 billion, a trade deficit of $700 billion to $800 billion and Americans saving only 1 percent of their income, we can no longer afford such nonsense. And it is not just tax-and-spend liberals who are culpable, but conservatives who believe they have patented a formula for the permanent retention of power: guns, butter and tax cuts, too!
With Medicare and Social Security costs about to soar as the first wave of baby boomers reaches early retirement in 2009, with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with troops in 100 countries, from the Balkans to Central Asia, from the Persian Gulf to Guam, with hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens breaking in yearly, we are stumbling toward national crisis.
If any major act of terrorism, or urban riot, is ever traced to criminal elements who came across the Mexican Border, the Bush presidency will be as busted as Lyndon Johnson’s in 1968. The tax cuts, or the welfare-warfare state, or the New American Empire has to go. We cannot afford them all.
With Marines and Army troops headed for third tours in Iraq, and the Guard and Reserve reaching the breaking point, how would we fight another war in any of the 50 countries we are committed to defend? And what are 37,000 U.S. troops still doing on a DMZ defending South Korea from a country with one-half its population and 3 percent of its economic wealth?
We wail about the cost of fuel and electricity and our dependence on Middle East oil – yet, we have oil and gas waiting to be tapped in Alaska and off the coasts of California and Florida, but refuse to go after it. We have not built a nuclear power plant or a refinery in 25 years, because we were frightened by Three Mile Island and no one wants a refinery in his back yard. Yet, since the death of the Soviet Empire, we have indulged in years of self-congratulatory braggadocio about being the “last superpower” and “indispensable nation.”
With 9-11, we got a wake-up call. With Katrina, the smoke alarm went off. America needs today an authentic conservatism that will end our Asian wars, shed this empire, bring the budgets back into balance – no matter the political cost – and make demands on us all for sacrifices.
Yes, the lazy, lovely days of summer are over.