The GOP message machine has now moved into the latest stage of its Katrina response: gleeful opportunism.
This was followed by the clueless stage, which will be best remembered by the president telling Michael Brown, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of job!", his mother saying of Katrina's victims, "This is working very well for them," Tom DeLay asking young evacuees in the Astrodome, "Now tell me the truth boys, is this kind of fun?", and the president vowing to rebuild Trent Lott's house: "I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch."
Next came head-ducking. Repeat after me: "This is not a time for finger pointing," "We are not going to play the blame game."
But after staggering through those stages, Republicans have regained their footing and are now hard at work finding the silver lining within all the death and destruction -- i.e. a chance to trot out their pet shibboleths and push for their pet projects.
"The question is," said Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, commenting on the now-abandoned plan to issue $2,000 debit cards to Katrina victims, "how do you separate the needy from those who just want a $2,000 handout?" Actually, Governor, the question is, among hundreds of thousands of evacuees are there any who are not really "needy" -- but somehow managed to have their lives destroyed so they could score a $2,000 handout?
Then there was Fox News' Tony Snow who crowed: "This would be a marvelous time to push in a serious way for school choice, dramatic regulatory reform...even more thoroughgoing tort reform, privatization of everything from the Department of Commerce to many FEMA duties, and so on."
David Sirota lays out a few of the top opportunities the GOP sees arising from Katrina, including the suspension of the 74-year-old Davis-Bacon Act requiring federal contractors to pay workers "prevailing wages," the chance to offer more giveaways (and fewer regulations) to oil companies, and -- proving that no issue is too tangential to link to Katrina -- the chance to try and get the president's derailed attempt to privatize Social Security back on track.
But wait, there's more. Pete Domenici is looking to ease environmental requirements on oil refineries, and George Allen wants to permanently repeal parts of the clean air act.
Two weeks in, Katrina has turned into an-all-you-can-eat right-wing-policy buffet.
And, as is so often the case with these tireless champions of crony capitalism, the main course at this opportunistic smorgasbord is "privatization." And the target du jour is FEMA. The subtext is that the Katrina debacle somehow proves that disaster relief is no business for the government and should be turned over to the Halliburtons of the world (after all, they've done such a great job supplying our troops and reconstructing Iraq, right?).
Of course, FEMA's Katrina failures have far less to do with some inherent big government bugaboos than with the way Bush and the partisan hacks he installed there turned a successful, widely-praised cabinet level agency (one that then-Gov. George Bush took time to praise in a debate with Al Gore in 2000) into a denuded and incompetently managed afterthought.
In truth, the piecemeal privatization of FEMA started soon after Bush took office -- and is one of the reasons it has stumbled so badly in Louisiana and Mississippi. Ezra Klein offers chapter and verse on this and on the chutzpah of the GOP attempt to use the Katrina fiasco to privatize FEMA: "The car broke because Bush slashed the tires and now his allies are trying to convince us that the real problem lies with the whole 'car' concept."
David Brooks spent his last column attempting to make this very case. Let me distill its essence for you: Government sucks! According to Brooks, "the Army Corps of Engineers had plenty of money" -- so the problem wasn't that Bush had slashed funding to fortify the levees, the problem was government. And according to Brooks, "there were ample troops nearby to maintain order" -- so the problem wasn't that nearly 40% of Louisiana and Mississippi's National Guard is deployed in Iraq, the problem was government. And the problem certainly wasn't that Bush had filled five of the eight top slots at FEMA with incompetent political cronies... the problem was (all together now!) government.
In fact, dear David, the fault lies not in the Platonic idea of government but in the crummy reality of our leaders.