CNN's Soledad O'Brien just interviewed actor Sean Penn and historian Douglas Brinkley who said they had to abandon their planned reconnaissance trip to do search and rescue -- and that almost all of the boats out there doing the rescues were civilian. It may be easy to dismiss Penn as a lefty, but Brinkley is conservative. The issue isn't ideology but competence.
Sound familiar? Remember when Michael Dukakis was pilloried for saying that government was all about competence, not ideology? Our current president's father quickly turned that around with his race-baiting Willie Horton ads. Watching Bush the son bungle the biggest natural disaster our country has ever experienced reminded me that competence does matter.
President Bush was able to deflect criticism after 9/11 because people always rally against an external enemy. This time the enemy is not someone we can vilify and even Rev. Pat Robertson couldn't turn the hurricane away (or is he clamining that he led it in to purge us of our sins?). As Paul Krugman wrote today in the New York Times:
"But the federal government's lethal ineptitude wasn't just a consequence of Mr. Bush's personal inadequacy; it was a consequence of ideological hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good. For 25 years the right has been denigrating the public sector, telling us that government is always the problem, not the solution. Why should we be surprised that when we needed a government solution, it wasn't forthcoming?"
As I wrote here previously, this inherent revulsion toward government undermines effectiveness in so many ways.
For one, it fails to attract to people to public service -- it's as if they have to hold their nose to work in government. It institutionalizes cronyism, where contracts automatically go to their pals in Halliburton and the goal is to privatize and outsource everything they can. And it means that the political appointees atop these federal agencies ignore competent staff recommendations in favor of political posturing instead of delivering on their promises.