Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Advancing the liberal agenda through good government

I am convinced that the basic building block to restoring a liberal vision in the United States is to re-affirm the public's trust in good government. The only way to tackle the magnitude of issues that face a country this large and diverse is through the only institution in which we all participate...government.

Over the years, the Republicans have done a great job of promoting mistrust in this one institution that can actually address our collective concerns. And yes, it was Ronald Reagan who gave that kind of thinking a big boost with statements like "Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem."

But more than making a speech about it - the Republicans have done everything they can think of to try to make this a reality. Of course the pinnacle of that was the failure of the federal government to deal with the devastation of hurricane Katrina. We all watched as the victims of that storm were left alone in their misery and the government looked helpless and inept.

But on a national level, the obstruction of the legislative process is another way the Republicans spread this meme of the government being ineffective. What it communicates to many people who don't pay attention to every twist and turn is that the whole system is a mess and can't be relied on to get anything done. That's when people tune out to politics and say "a pox on both your houses."

So we've got our job cut out for us in turning that mindset around. The problem is...the media and too many Americans don't pay attention when something works. What catches everyone's attention is the failures. And prevention is always something that's hard to demonstrate. As an example, its hard to imagine how much more damage could have been done or lives lost if FEMA hadn't been as prepared as they were for hurricane Irene.

But today, Dana Milbank at least tries to tell that story.

Don’t expect anybody to throw a tea party, but Big Government finally got one right.

On Monday, six years to the day after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans and obliterated the notion of a competent federal government, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate offered an anecdote that showed just how different things were with Hurricane Irene...

The Irene government would seem to have its benefits. Before the storm struck, 18 FEMA teams deployed from Florida to Maine, repositioning as the emphasis moved to New England. Food, water, generators and tarps were in place along the storm’s path. In Vermont, when the storm forced evacuation of the state emergency operations center, the workers relocated to a FEMA facility. In North Carolina, FEMA provided in-the-dark local authorities with generator power. And everywhere, FEMA, given new authority by Congress after Katrina, didn’t have to wait for states to request help.

“We have to go fast; we have to base it upon the potential impacts,” Fugate said Monday, describing the Irene response. “That’s why we look at these forecasts we get from the hurricane center, and we make the decisions based upon what the potential impacts could be. If you wait till you know how bad it is, it becomes harder to change the outcome.”

That’s one model. The other model is to have a weak federal government, without the funds to forecast storms or to launch a robust emergency response in time to do any good. You might call that the Tea Party model.

I'm not one that thinks its a good idea to make too many comparisons between Katrina and Irene. We all should know by now that the real devastation of Katrina was a result of the levees breaking more than it was about the actual damage caused by the storm itself.

But on that front, we can also talk about the role of good government in addressing that issue...finally. As Politifact points out, Obama has kept his promise to "ensure that New Orleans has a levee and pumping system to protect the city against a 100-year storm by 2011."

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the federal government (along with state and local help) committed more than $14 billion to develop a levee and pumping system around New Orleans capable of protecting against a 100-year storm. It would be the biggest civil works project in the history of the Army Corps of Engineers. And Obama promised it would be completed by 2011.

As promised, nearly six years since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, that goal has largely been accomplished.

According to a May 29, 2011, story by Mark Schleifstein of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "The new system represents an unprecedented engineering feat that took six years to build, with more than $8 billion spent so far on design and construction. And it required a complete rewriting of the rules used by the corps to build both levees and hurricane levees."

These aren't the kind of stories that tend to make it to the headlines to beat out the ones about the presidential horse-race to which our mainstream media seems obsessed, or the screaming that tends to come from the baggers of tea and fire. But they are the ones that could convince the general public that, if we work together through good government, we can address our collective concerns. And that would do more to advance the liberal agenda than anything else I can imagine.

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