Politically as well as physically, the destructive force of nature can rip away surfaces and expose layers of decay. With the floodwaters of Katrina receding, we can see beneath the veneer of modern conservatism and gaze upon its rotten center.
For in the nation’s capital, at least, that traditional philosophy of society and statecraft appears to have degenerated into a public-relations scam.
The obvious fact is that Republicans are the party of big spending, big deficits and big government, no matter how indignantly their leaders profess to despise all those terrible things. Yet the history of the Bush administration and the G.O.P. Congress makes it equally obvious that they’re also incompetent at governing. So the question that Americans now confront is why these fakers should be allowed to waste hundreds of billions of dollars, adding to the hundreds of billions they have already squandered, when the results of their exertions are so unsatisfactory—and so self-serving.
Although George W. Bush is universally acknowledged to be the most conservative President in recent memory, he is now doing exactly what he and his ideological allies have always mocked liberals for doing. In the classic right-wing cliché (which isn’t heard much these days), he is “throwing money at the problem” of the hurricane’s aftermath.
According to journalists familiar with the panicky deliberations inside the White House, the President and his aides are ready to jettison their cherished principles of federal frugality and limited government, with little ceremony and few regrets. Time magazine reports that they will pursue a simple approach in hopes of reviving the Bush Presidency: “Spend freely, and worry about the tab and the consequences later.”
There probably isn’t any other way to relieve suffering and restore civilization down there. But knowing what we know about this administration, there can be little confidence that those billions will be spent wisely and competently.
In fact, there is every reason to worry that far too much will be wasted on partisan patronage and no-bid contracts. The flaming right-wingers who have controlled Congress since 1995 long ago proved eager to grease their friends with federal money. Their excesses make the old-line Democratic pols who used to run Congress look stingy.
The money quote on this topic was uttered by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. Asked once why his revolutionary Republican comrades were consuming so much more federal pork than the Democrats ever did, the Texas conservative replied smugly: “To the victors go the spoils.” (He now leads Freedomworks, a national organization advocating limited government and lower taxes.)
The Bush conservatives resolve the contradiction between their ideology and their compulsion to spend by channeling public funds to their corporate cronies. Such corrupt logrolling hardly qualifies as traditional conservatism, but that is what currently defines governance in the White House, the Capitol and along K Street.
The Medicare prescription-drug benefit, designed to entice elderly voters, disguised a massive subsidy to the pharmaceutical industry—which returns many millions to Republican causes and conservative institutions. The energy bill provided still more enormous subsidies to the oil and utility industries, which likewise recycle millions to right-wing candidates and think tanks. Thanks to Republican tax policies, the money to grease these highly profitable corporations comes increasingly from middle-income families, redistributing national income upward.
All the boodling might be less troubling if they were using public money to accomplish an important public purpose. Waste and corruption accompany almost every major enterprise. But crony capitalism—the governing philosophy of the Bush family—is a notoriously inefficient way to run a government.
Enormous sums have simply disappeared in Iraq, where Halliburton has battened on its cozy relationship with the White House and the Pentagon by billing for hundreds of millions of dollars in “questioned” and “unsupported” expenses. How has the Bush administration punished its favorite firm for those abuses? By almost instantly awarding Halliburton new contracts for cleaning up the Gulf Coast destruction, with the prospect of much more to come.
Emphasizing the Halliburton embarrassment was the presence in New Orleans of the company’s “consultant,” Joe Allbaugh, a longtime Bush staffer and friend who also happens to be the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He is the man responsible for the elevation of Michael D. (Brownie) Brown, the unqualified pretender who just resigned in disgrace from that same FEMA post.
The story of the FEMA buddies offers a paradigm of public service in the Bush era. Behind their anti-government rhetoric, the Republicans have learned how to make government work for them, by employing the unemployable and enriching the super-rich. Critical needs are left unmet, and gigantic deficits are left to posterity.
This isn’t conservatism, but a con—and they’re taking us all for suckers.