- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Hurricane preparedness and response improved dramatically along the Gulf Coast from Katrina to Rita. Now a fresh storm advances on Capitol Hill — and the outer bands of hurricane-force rhetoric already darken the horizon. But this next tempest is a legislative typhoon — including a critical philosophical debate about social policy and government’s role in helping improve lives and rebuild ravaged cities.

It’s also a showdown between two competing visions of how to most effectively help people. Without adequate preparation, it’s a battle that conservatives could easily lose.

President Bush triggered this debate by proposing some bold ways to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Gulf Opportunity Zones, Urban Homesteading, Individual Re-employment Accounts and proposals allowing federal money to follow students to the schools of their choice all could chip away at decades of failed social-welfare policies.

But the president’s new initiatives are already churning up some violent political weather from the left. Republicans and conservatives must immediately begin the necessary planning for this hurricane rhetoric barreling toward them. While the timing remains a little murky, sometime in the next few weeks Congress will translate Mr. Bush’s ideas into legislation. Lawmakers will package these provisions into an omnibus vehicle providing assistance to the region, or maybe into budget-reconciliation legislation (Congress plans two reconciliation bills, one aimed at spending reductions and another dealing with extending current tax policies).

Years of crafting and defending the welfare state have sharpened liberals’ rhetorical swords. But as Daniel Henninger wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal, “New Orleans needs an exemption from politics and policies of the past 40 years.” Congress now has the opportunity to do just that.

But the status quo storm surge is already building. Charges of “ideological” excess came with alacrity from the usual suspects. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said, “The Gulf Coast region does not deserve to be treated as a laboratory for political opportunism or ideological experimentation.” Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy told The Washington Post, “Instead of opening ideological battles, we should be focused on reopening schools and getting people the help they need.” And Massachusetts’ other senator, John Kerry, ripped a page right out of his 2004 presidential campaign stump speech saying, “The plan they’re designing for the Gulf Coast turns the region into a vast laboratory for right-wing ideological experiments.” Is that the level of hell just above a “risky tax scheme?”

Republicans and the White House cannot afford timidity in this battle. Nor can they be rhetorically unarmed. This is a huge fight, and liberals’ weapons are battle-tested and sharpened for just this kind of political jousting.

Debating social policy reform has not, historically, been a Republican strong suit. While many of Mr. Bush’s ideas have been around for a while, articulating an alternative to the liberal welfare state is not traditionally within the Republican comfort zone. But that’s changing. Mr. Bush has done his party a great service in the last several years by promoting compassionate conservative ideas, challenging liberals’ hegemony on social policy, transforming the debate to a dialogue about means and tactics rather than motives and ends. Both sides want to help people, but conservatives want to do it through market incentives, personal responsibility and choices — rather than just federal money.

Lawmakers such as Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania have pioneered new rhetoric and corresponding policy initiatives, like the Senate anti-poverty agenda. Think tanks such as the Manhattan Institute and the American Enterprise Institute have also produced rigorous and intellectually compelling alternatives to the welfare state, but more conservatives on the Hill need to enlist in this army of compassion.

Lawmakers must get comfortable articulating why ownership, opportunity and choice — the values that underlie Mr. Bush’s proposals — are a more effective and compassionate way to help those trapped by the welfare state, why building social capital is more than just spending federal money.

For conservatives, this debate is too important to risk sloppy planning. It is time to learn the specifics of Mr. Bush’s ideas, get comfortable talking about them and prepare for hurricane rhetoric barreling toward the Capitol.

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