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Politics Starts at the Water's Edge
Published on Wednesday, September 7, 2005 by
Politics Starts at the Water's Edge
by David Michael Green
There's pretty much only one thing that the Bush administration was ever good at, and now they can't even do that.

For five years now, they've managed to fool a whole bunch of Americans about a whole bunch of stuff. Not the rest of us, mind you, and not the rest of the world, of course. But enough people such that - combined with the ineptitude of the Democrats, the greed of the media, and the cowardice of both - they could win/steal a few elections and obtain initial backing for their dismal policies.

But the last month has shown that they no longer even possess that talent (could Karl Rove have one or two other things on his mind?). Now progressives need to drive a hurricane through this crack in the White House PR facade.

One of Rove's great talents has been the ability to market whatever detergent flakes he's flacking by attaching the powerful associations of simple, clear and compelling attributes to them. In the case of his flake-in-chief client, those associations have included such nonsense qualities as 'tough', 'resolute', 'moral' and 'steadfast'.

Perhaps most ridiculous of all (not counting the utterly ludicrous 'compassionate', of course) has been the idea of Bush as a 'competent' leader, such that a given centrist voter might think to himself, "Well, I don't much agree with those Bush guys, but at least I can trust them to run a tight ship."

Oh, man, that's rich. Remember when these clowns came to Washington bragging that "the grown-ups were back in charge"? I wouldn't want to be saying that in (what used to be) New Orleans right now.

Now, even the right-wing media, even Republicans in Congress, are expressing their dismay at what they've seen in Louisiana and Mississippi this last week, and that anger is being repeatedly and properly directed at the (occasional) occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Me, I say "Welcome to Baghdad, Louisiana".

Now is the time to expose and repaint this president and his administration for what they truly are. In addition to (and in part because of) being ideological zealots - something Americans tend to revile anyhow - they are also, at the end of the day, simple bumbling incompetents.

The public is beginning to get this, and the press are somehow finding the courage to say what is transparently obvious, but the point must be pressed further, the obvious associations to other policy areas must be made, and the rebranding of the Bush presidency fully completed.

Americans need to understand that people were stranded and dying for days in the Superdome for the same reason that, two-and-a-half years later, the road between downtown Baghdad and the airport is still not secured: George Bush doesn't care, except when it begins to pinch him personally.

Americans need to understand that the reason we were unprepared for Hurricane Katrina is the same reason we were unprepared for the attacks of 9/11: this worse-than-useless quasi-occupant of the Oval Office was extending yet further his record for most vacation time taken by an American president, and ignoring imminent crises.

Americans need to understand that Katrina victims could not get supplies for days on end for the same reason that soldiers in Iraq still don't have adequate armor: this president, who gets almost everything he wants, couldn't be bothered to want these things.

Americans need to understand that FEMA is inept for the same reason that the national treasury is hemorrhaging a sea of red ink: because they've chosen a president who views the federal government as a personal playground for cronyism and looting.

Americans need to understand that the same president who gave medals to George Tenet and Paul Bremer for their unbelievably botched service to American and Iraqi security is now praising Michael Brown, the head of FEMA, for "doing a heckuva job".

Americans need to understand that Hurricane Katrina happened for the same reason that Arctic ice masses and Siberian tundra are melting: this country has a president who ignores the reality of global warming, hurtling us toward destruction on an unprecedented scale.

And Americans need to understand that the same president who has shown himself so incredibly inept this week was just as useless in the days following 9/11 as well - the retrospectively redacted 'history' of his leadership notwithstanding. Just as he ran away then and lied about doing so, he ran away this week as well, and lied about the government's disaster response and preparation.

I'm not even talking here about the transparent racism and classism of the Katrina disaster. Those are ugly and obvious, and in any morally just universe would forever stain the administration with the contempt it so richly deserves.

Nor am I talking about the ideological claptrap of government-as-the-enemy which conservatives trot out every opportunity they get (except when it comes to feeding the military machine, enriching themselves, or bloating the very budgets they promise to slash). Americans don't like ideology, but they don't like taxes and government either, so it's an open question whether they'll ever figure that one out.

All I'm talking about is one small but crucial bit of political fallout from this crisis, which goes to the simple question of competence. Rove and his team have been masterful at surrounding this corrupt and buffoonish enfant terrible with the mantle of competence, and for good reason. Doing so has been crucial to allowing many centrists to give themselves permission to hold their noses and vote for him. No competence patina, no centrist votes.

Which is precisely why said veneer must be stripped off him now, to show those increasingly angry voters that Bush is no more competent in the Persian Gulf (or on the budget, or regarding global warming, or anywhere else) than he has been in our own. Americans have died in Iraq - perhaps by the hundreds - because of a commander-in-chief so incompetent he thought the war was over before it ever really began.

And sorry but no thanks to anyone naively believing that it would be wrong to 'politicize' this tragedy. Those were the good old days, before the Atwater/Gingrich/Rove school of cheap and dirty politics deeply coarsened the American political process, driving us inexorably to this debauched present. Politics used to stop at the water's edge, but not for these guys, who would give away CIA assets merely for political revenge against those who expose their deceits.

With the utter failure to plan for a Katrina-like disaster that everyone knew could happen, with the defunding of existing preventative projects, the deployment of needed National Guard forces to Iraq, the appointment of incompetent cronies to head key agencies, and the complete failure to take action in time to save perhaps thousands of lives, politics starts at the water's edge where Katrina's concerned. Lord knows Rove will exploit this tragedy every bit as much as he did 9/11.

There has been much talk these last years about the art of framing. And well there should be - framing is crucial. It is time for progressive forces to begin undoing this presidency by stripping away the false but crucial frame which allows Americans - even those who disagree with him politically - to trust Bush as a competent chief executive.

He is, instead, an immature child of privilege who is (marginally) good only at saying what other people tell him to say on the campaign trail.

Even apart from the natural disaster of his abhorrent politics, George W. Bush is a president who couldn't run a government competently if his vacations depended on it.

This is true across far more policy arenas than responding to Hurricane Katrina, and now is the time to make that clear.

David Michael Green ( is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.


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