September 7, 2005
ByTHOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
On the day after 9/11, I was in Jerusalem and was interviewed by Israeli TV. The reporter asked me, "Do you think the Bush administration is up to responding to this attack?" As best I can recall, I answered: "Absolutely. One thing I can assure you about these guys is that they know how to pull the trigger."
It was just a gut reaction that George Bush and Dick Cheney were the right guys to deal with Osama. I was not alone in that feeling, and as a result, Mr. Bush got a mandate, almost a blank check, to rule from 9/11 that he never really earned at the polls. Unfortunately, he used that mandate not simply to confront the terrorists but to take a radically uncompassionate conservative agenda - on taxes, stem cells, the environment and foreign treaties - that was going nowhere before 9/11, and drive it into a post-9/11 world. In that sense, 9/11 distorted our politics and society.
Well, if 9/11 is one bookend of the Bush administration, Katrina may be the other. If 9/11 put the wind at President Bush's back, Katrina's put the wind in his face. If the Bush-Cheney team seemed to be the right guys to deal with Osama, they seem exactly the wrong guys to deal with Katrina - and all the rot and misplaced priorities it's exposed here at home.
These are people so much better at inflicting pain than feeling it, so much better at taking things apart than putting them together, so much better at defending "intelligent design" as a theology than practicing it as a policy.
For instance, it's unavoidably obvious that we need a real policy of energy conservation. But President Bush can barely choke out the word "conservation." And can you imagine Mr. Cheney, who has already denounced conservation as a "personal virtue" irrelevant to national policy, now leading such a campaign or confronting oil companies for price gouging?
And then there are the president's standard lines: "It's not the government's money; it's your money," and, "One of the last things that we need to do to this economy is to take money out of your pocket and fuel government." Maybe Mr. Bush will now also tell us: "It's not the government's hurricane - it's your hurricane."
An administration whose tax policy has been dominated by the toweringly selfish Grover Norquist - who has been quoted as saying: "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub" - doesn't have the instincts for this moment. Mr. Norquist is the only person about whom I would say this: I hope he owns property around the New Orleans levee that was never properly finished because of a lack of tax dollars. I hope his basement got flooded. And I hope that he was busy drowning government in his bathtub when the levee broke and that he had to wait for a U.S. Army helicopter to get out of town.
The Bush team has engaged in a tax giveaway since 9/11 that has had one underlying assumption: There will never be another rainy day. Just spend money. You knew that sooner or later there would be a rainy day, but Karl Rove has assumed it wouldn't happen on Mr. Bush's watch - that someone else would have to clean it up. Well, it did happen on his watch.
Besides ripping away the roofs of New Orleans, Katrina ripped away the argument that we can cut taxes, properly educate our kids, compete with India and China, succeed in Iraq, keep improving the U.S. infrastructure, and take care of a catastrophic emergency - without putting ourselves totally into the debt of Beijing.
So many of the things the Bush team has ignored or distorted under the guise of fighting Osama were exposed by Katrina: its refusal to impose a gasoline tax after 9/11, which would have begun to shift our economy much sooner to more fuel-efficient cars, helped raise money for a rainy day and eased our dependence on the world's worst regimes for energy; its refusal to develop some form of national health care to cover the 40 million uninsured; and its insistence on cutting more taxes, even when that has contributed to incomplete levees and too small an Army to deal with Katrina, Osama and Saddam at the same time.
As my Democratic entrepreneur friend Joel Hyatt once remarked, the Bush team's philosophy since 9/11 has been: "We're at war. Let's party."
Well, the party is over. If Mr. Bush learns the lessons of Katrina, he has a chance to replace his 9/11 mandate with something new and relevant. If that happens, Katrina will have destroyed New Orleans, but helped to restore America. If Mr. Bush goes back to his politics as usual, he'll be thwarted at every turn. Katrina will have destroyed a city and a presidency.