House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert began his day yesterday explaining that he really does not want to see New Orleans bulldozed, and he ended it defending his absence from the Capitol when Congress approved a $10.5 billion hurricane aid package. In between, a former president hinted he would like to throttle the Illinois Republican.Say what you will about President Clinton, everyone who met him uniformly found his presence comforting in times of crisis. It wasn't what he said or did, it was purely a matter of physical presence and charisma.
Hastert was still reeling from reaction to his comments earlier this week about the storm-ravaged city. "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," he said in an interview with the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill. Asked whether it made sense to spend billions of dollars rebuilding a city that lies below sea level, he told the paper, "I don't know. That doesn't make sense to me."
Hastert later issued a statement saying he was not "advocating that the city be abandoned or relocated." But Louisiana Democrats were incensed. Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco demanded an apology. "To kick us when we're down and destroy hope, when hope is the only thing we have left," she said, "is absolutely unthinkable for a leader in his position."
In Syracuse, N.Y., former president Bill Clinton was discussing New Orleans's dilemma when someone described the speaker's comments. Had they been in the same place when the remarks were made, Clinton said, "I'm afraid I would have assaulted him."
Hastert again tried to smooth things over. Shortly after a small number of House members unanimously approved the $10.5 billion relief plan at about 1 p.m., he issued a statement saying, "Our prayers and sympathies continue to be with the victims of Hurricane Katrina. In times like these, it is more important than ever for Americans to stand united in helping our fellow citizens."
But there was one problem: Hastert was not in Washington, and his top lieutenants had to oversee the vote. He was in Indiana attending a colleague's fundraiser, staff members said, and he later attended an antique car auction.
So, the liberal blogosphere is raising money for the Red Cross, MoveOn.org is finding temporary housing for the refugees, the DNC is paying staff while they help out in the damaged areas, and President Clinton is showing a personal emotional connection with the events.
Meanwhile, Republicans are fundraising, playing their guitars, and trying to figure out how to cut taxes for the very richest Americans.
This isn't a time for partisanship, and I don't want to get into a mudfight. My point is priorities. I truly believe that this could have been handled better, and I don't see evidence that things are getting better. I see regular people stepping up and doing things that the government is supposed to be doing. Small government conservatives lost their argument today. A central government is vital for these sorts of unpredictable events. A weakened and over-stretched government is the solution to the problem.
Grover Norquist famously said that he wanted to shrink the government until it was small enough to drown in the bathtub. If the government is small enough to drown in the waters flooding New Orleans, A lot will go down with it. Norquist has tried to portray Republicans who vote to raise taxes as "ratheads in a Coke bottle." I think we can see the rats and decide who they are. There are big hairy things swimming through the streets of New Orleans. There are people trying to slip a massive tax cut through while attention is elsewhere. There are people flatpicking while New Orleans floods. There are people shopping for antique cars rather than giving support to people in need.
Lots of people, Republicans and Democrats alike, have given millions of dollars, gallons of blood, bottled water, time, spare rooms, canned food, extra clothing and special expertise to the people who lost everything to Katrina. Those people all deserve credit. It's not about religion, politics, race or any of the other things that divide people.
Let's spend the next month rethinking our priorities. Let's not make big tax cuts or hikes. Let's spend what needs to be spent to rebuild New Orleans. Then, let's think seriously about how we deal with crises like this in the future, and how to fund that plan. This will happen again. We'll have terrorists and avian flu and everything. If this was a test, we failed. We need to do better next time.