Still Pissed Off About the Hawley-Smoot Tariff

Friday, September 02, 2005

In (partial) Defense of Nagin, Blanco and Bush

Update: Jeff Goldstein kills me. He's like a Jewish Mel Brooks.

All over the 'sphere political bloggers have, unsurprisingly, begun to criticize relief efforts -- or at any rate, to criticize the criticism. I'm a little stunned by what I'm about to write, since it involves me saying something about Louisiana governor Kathleen "Committee" Blanco that doesn't involve how she should be tied up by Snidely Whiplash and left on a train track.

When a disaster strikes, whether man-made or natural, there are essentially two roles for leaders, including mayors, governors, or the President.

The first function I will broadly describe as logistical. In the context of Katrina, that means getting people off the rooftops and toward mass-gathering places like the Superdome or the Convention Center. It means evacuating the gathered people. It means providing food, water, clothing and medicine to both of the above-mentioned groups. It means security. When human life and health are secured, it means draining the water, cleaning up, and beginning repairs.

I don't think N.O. Mayor Ray Nagin deserves all the criticism he's getting on the logistical side. The Mayor of a city necessarily has limited resources, and if the city is part of a metropolitan area, it requires coordination with other mayors who also have limited resources and possibly incompatible partisan agendas. Ray Nagin can't be blamed for the levee problems, because the levee system is simply too big of a deal to handle at that level of government. In addition, Nagin's jurisdiction involves notoriously corrupt and ineffectual cops, and criminals who know it. The response at the city level could have been planned better, but I won't criticize Nagin or anyone else for being less than perfect in the face of a completely unprecedented natural disaster.

For different reasons, I don't think Kathy Blanco deserves all the criticism she's gotten. In my opinion, all the logistical problems that are beyond the scope of Nagin's capacities are perfectly at home in the governor's office, and if Louisiana weren't such a political wasteland I'd expect a lot more from the state's executive. But in spite of all my instincts to blame Blanco, I can't do it simply because she hasn't been around long enough to have effected anything like meaningful change anyway. She is nothing more than the latest in a long line of corrupt or ineffective governors, and she can't be blamed for their failures any more than Bush can legitimately be criticized for the consequences of Clinton's disastrous policy decisions. So I'll cut her a little slack.

Finally, I lay no blame at Bush's feet, because federal disaster relief -- which I believe is necessary and warranted under the Constitution -- is at best a second line of defense. First response is an obligation for the states, with the feds merely supporting and supplementing. Calling for more micromanagement in federal disaster relief is impractical, and exceeds the narrow scope of federal intervention that I'm willing to tolerate. So if it took a few days for Bush to mobilize a federal response, that is not the important inquiry -- only whether the response was adequate given the role the feds should be playing. And we'll have to wait a few days to see how that pans out, but for now at least they have distributed food and water to the refugees at the Convention Center.

All of this brings us to the second function of a leader, and that is that great intangible: leadership. Rudy Giuliani exuded it after 9/11. President Bush mobilized the nation and strengthened our resolve, whether today's lefties remember or not. Leadership means preventing panic, preserving order and instilling faith that the disaster will be dealt with and everything will be okay.

Ray Nagin failed this second function miserably. While I don't blame the man for not being able to launch a metropolitan-wide search-and-rescue and evacuation operation, that doesn't excuse his turning to the cameras to launch a vicious attack on the feds, who had no business acting as first-responders anyway. Nagin instilled no confidence: he caused panic and fear. He didn't give any of the refugees in the Dome or at the Convention Center information, but let them remain in ignorance -- which is the surest source of unrest and revolt. No one heard him speak and thought "everything will be okay." I'm not saying I could have done better. I'm not even saying that, in the face of a Katrina-sized disaster, most people could have done better. But there are some, natural leaders, who would have made the best of a bad situation and shown real leadership.

As bad as Nagin was, here's the part where I get to really tear into Blanco. Where the hell did she go? She gave a speech the night of, and then nobody heard from her at all until a few days later. What was that all about? Going in front of a camera and looking shaken is one thing. Disappearing completely is much, much worse.

Bush did much better, although by this point, he's had a lot more practice. His speeches were somber, but they hit all the bases -- thank the rescuers, troops, charity-types for their efforts during a hard time; explain the status of rescue and rebuild operations; ask for patience and cooperation. You know, leadership. It may be bullcrap figurehead stuff, but at times, bullcrap figurehead is exactly what is needed while the troops on the ground do their work.