- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2005

Might as well announce now that New Orleans will be the site of the 2008 Republican Convention. I say this for the same reason that Capt. Ramius, the fictional Soviet skipper in “The Hunt for Red October,” sent a letter to his bigshot pal in the Kremlin announcing his intention to defect to the United States and turn his state-of-the-art ballistic-missile submarine over to the Americans: Ramius wanted to make sure that the officers who were in on the plan with him understood there was no going back.

George W. Bush sustained serious political damage over his initial handling of Katrina. It’s hard to believe that the sharp criticism of the administration in the first 72 hours following the Asian tsunami in December 2004 didn’t teach at least this political lesson: Where the president is and what he’s doing in times of emergency are critical. The Harvard MBA model, if that’s what Mr. Bush is following, of putting people in place and letting them run, even had it not broken down over the hapless head of FEMA, would still have been inadequate. Mr. Bush himself needed to be out front.

As to substance, it’s time for the administration to get over its romantic view that social order is self-sustaining even in extreme circumstances. Bafflement greeted the looting of Baghdad in 2003 and the looting of New Orleans in 2005. In neither case did law (as the structure of social order) survive the disappearance of an authority to enforce it. Yes, of course, most people want the law. But some don’t, and a few can terrorize many given the opportunity. Maintaining order may in general be a local matter, but when the locals fail, the federal government is on the hook, too, at least by this point in the history of the republic.

But Mr. Bush is in two respects lucky: First of all, the attempt to blame him personally was so egregious and overreaching that it actually stabilized the political situation for him among core supporters who were otherwise unhappy about what they were seeing on television. Second, the loose talk about 10,000 dead was way off. “This is not as bad as we first thought” is better going forward than “this is even worse than we first thought.” Of course, the loose talk was not unrelated to the attempt to blame Mr. Bush.

And now, Mr. Bush has in abundance what his opponents have been striving mightily to deprive him of: an opportunity to pursue a robust second-term agenda. That would be the rebuilding of New Orleans.

Mr. Bush likes to think big. Hence, his ambition to reform Social Security with private accounts and his commission looking at proposals for major tax reform, due to report shortly. The problem is that the political alignment for such bold policy reforms is all wrong: Democrats decided that for the sake of their own political needs, they had to unite against Bush-style changes in Social Security. No doubt far-reaching tax reform would meet a similar fate. Democrats do not see their future in compromising with the conservative agenda, and there is not much Mr. Bush can do to change their minds on this point.

The reconstruction of New Orleans is an entirely different matter. Here, Mr. Bush has what Social Security and tax reform lacked: a real sense of crisis that places his political opponents in an awkward position. He can make demands in the name of New Orleans, including demands for substantive policy changes that he could never obtain in the absence of a crisis.

Democrats may find themselves in a position similar to the one they were in with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. At some point, the New Orleans Reconstruction and National Emergency Preparedness Act is going to come rumbling down the pipeline, and unless the White House and Congress are politically hapless, it will be full of, well, Republican stuff.

But what will the political price of opposing it be? Will Democrats be in a position to stand up against the White House? Which will they fear more, the use of opposition against them or the risk that giving Mr. Bush a substantially bipartisan victory will depress their own supporters?

Of course, it falls to the White House and GOP congressional leaders to devise and execute a proper political strategy. And in this respect, there is risk to the program on the Republican side. There is no doubt but that many Republicans are mighty uncomfortable with the idea of the federal government, rather than state and local authorities, as first responder to natural disasters. Some will balk at the price tag of rebuilding an American city. The ensuing plan is also likely to involve major sums for preventive action in other endangered areas.

But there is only one way for Mr. Bush to go, and that is forward. He needs his junior officers, so to speak, to understand that.

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