Reaching for inspiration as he addressed America Thursday night, George W. Bush didn't declare that "the era of small government is over," but then again, he didn't have to. If the promises in his speech were insufficiently loud and clear, they were amplified by the anguished screams from his fellow Republicans.
For years now, Bush has run his government like those free-spending liberals once demonized by the right, only less responsibly. This president doesn't merely tax and spend; he cuts taxes and spends more. The difference in his New Orleans speech -- and what most irked his friends among the right-wing faithful -- was that in his palpable desperation, he no longer even pretends to uphold limited government and fiscal prudence.
In ways both obvious and subtle, this most conservative of chief executives disregarded and even discarded the orthodoxies of his party. It was remarkable indeed to listen as he finally confessed his administration's failures -- and then to hear him proudly list the services that federal agencies are now providing to the hurricane's victims. No expense is too great and no need shall be overlooked, he seemed to imply. Name the amount that will restore his leadership and approval ratings, not to mention his legacy, and he will write the check.
He proudly cited the $60 billion down payment on the relief and reconstruction effort requested by him and voted for by Congress, which "demonstrates the compassion and resolve of our nation." According to the conservative lexicon, it is forbidden to refer to federal spending as proof of compassion. On the right, and especially among "compassionate conservatives," the true proof of caring is to cut spending and deny services that might engender dependency.
Beyond promising to rebuild the Gulf Coast with hundreds of billions of borrowed federal dollars, Bush mocked conservatism when he spoke about the old-fashioned Southern squalor revealed in the hurricane's wake.
"Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well," he said.
"That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality."
To Republicans who believe that poor people are responsible for their own plight, his blunt admission of racism as poverty's underlying cause was ideological heresy. To them, his demand for "bold action" to lift people up from destitution -- as a public duty, no less -- must have sounded like a disturbing echo of FDR, JFK or LBJ. To others, including me, it was refreshing to hear him describe the reality that conservatives like him have so studiously ignored or distorted for so long -- and acknowledge forthrightly that government must act to alleviate suffering and encourage change. Perhaps one of his pusillanimous assistants dared to mention that poverty has increased every year since he took office. (Or maybe that little fact turned up in the soundtrack of his Katrina broadcast DVD.)
The satisfactions of Bush's desperate address are likely to be fleeting, however. It is clear that the Republicans in Congress are determined to impose their own narrow agenda on the Katrina crisis, seizing the moment to eviscerate tort laws, undermine environmental protections, enact school vouchers and gut labor protections, all as "temporary emergency" measures. They are scheming to bestow still more subsidies and concessions on the price-gouging oil industry, evidently believing that the "incentives" stuffed into the energy bill last month were insufficiently lavish.
Most absurd, they will seek to cut the estate tax, which affects only a tiny and wealthy elite, in the name of assisting the poor and destitute. (And then they will complain that the government lacks sufficient funding for the president's reconstruction plans.)
Bush's ambitions seem destined to foster the same corruption and waste that have accompanied his other big project -- in Iraq. The same crony capitalism that is draining the American effort on the shores of the Persian Gulf has swiftly arrived on the Gulf Coast. Halliburton and Bechtel have been joined by Kenyon, the subsidiary of scandal-ridden funeral giant SCI, which has been hired to gather and tally the dead. As Paul Krugman notes in his Friday column, Bush should aspire to the remarkable efficiency and integrity of the New Deal -- and, it might be added, to the enlightened rationality and generosity of the Marshall Plan.
Expectations must be kept low, of course. Bush is no FDR or Harry Truman -- and Karl Rove, who will reportedly oversee the reconstruction project, is no George C. Marshall.