Friday, September 09, 2005

'Blame-Gaming' the Feds

One thing we can all agree on is that there's plenty of blame to go around when it comes to the inadequate preparation for, and response to, Hurricane Katrina. Or can we?

The Bush administration and some prominent Republicans are having a little trouble grasping that the federal government might have some responsibility for reacting to the worst natural disaster in the country in generations. A defensive and bedraggled Scott McClellan even invented a new word to describe what the awful Democrats are doing: 'blame-gaming'.

It's not that the Republicans are averse to 'blame-gaming', per se. The just don't like it when the finger is pointing at them. When it comes to the new and improved GOP, the best defense is a good offense and they know from experience that blame, just like that other stuff, runs downhill.

That's why we've seen the White House and influential Republicans blaming local and state officials, not to mention the victims themselves. On Tuesday, everyone's favorite ethics role-model, Tom DeLay, sought to deflect criticism from federal government by claiming that the "emergency response system was set up to work from the bottom up."

This is, of course, an extremely weak argument. Everybody—presumably even the vacationing President Bush—saw a category 5 hurricane heading straight for a city that is mostly below sea level and has levees designed to withstand only a category 3 hurricane. If I knew that this storm was going to be a catastrophe, god knows the federal government should have known.

But, as Tom DeLay would have us believe, the feds stood by watching this slow-motion apocalypse and genuinely expected the mayor of New Orleans to single-handedly mount one of the biggest peace-time civilian evacuations in history. Is that really the plan we have in effect? Do we really want the safety and well-being of American citizens left to city councils and aldermen?

Isn't it the federal government's job to take the lead when part of the U.S. is hit by a disaster that is well beyond the scope of any municipality, or even state, to handle? Or does the massive expansion of federal powers shepherded in by the Bush administration stop short of public safety? Do we hold the Manhattan Borough President responsible for 9/11 or for the ongoing defense of New York City? Of course not. The massive influx of federal dollars into the Homeland Security budgets of major American cities like New York, Washington and Chicago is clear evidence that the federal government acknowledges its responsibility to public safety—even within local jurisdictions.

Maybe someone should inform George Bush about this, but we have a federal government for a reason. If everything was supposed to be left to the local authorities, then why have a constitution or a president or a congress—or FEMA, for that matter?

I'll be the first to admit that the woeful response to Hurricane Katrina could never have happened if not for the combined failures of local, state and federal officials and agencies. But many in the Republican party are only interested in 'blame-gaming' when discussing the first two (and when it comes to state officials, the Democratic governor of Louisiana seems to have done a much worse job than the governors of Mississippi and Alabama, who, as chance would have it, happen to be Republicans).

There is a dangerous assumption taking hold in certain corners of Washington and springing up all over the blogosphere, that because there are people other than Bush who deserve some blame, the president therefore merits none at all.

I say it's "dangerous" because this attitude is terrible for America and will do nothing to help our country get prepared for another catastrophe, whether it's man-made or an act of God. Back in the infancy of this country, we had a president who said, "I cannot tell a lie." Now we have a president whose mantra seems to be, "I cannot make a mistake."

The idea that certain prominent figures on the right would rule out any culpability on the part of the current administration is tantamount to saying, "I don't care about America." There really do seem to be people who believe that protecting the president from criticism is more important than getting to the bottom of what happened and why things turned out the way they did. The last thing the administration should do right now is give the impression that no one is minding the store when it comes to federal preparedness for a disaster. Unfortunately for Bush and his minions, pawning all the responsibility off on the lower officials does exactly this.

The task over the next months will be to try to understand what went wrong so that it will never happen again. To close off one avenue of inquiry from the start would only cripple this progress. The truth is out there. We just need the courage to actually find it.
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