September 21, 2005
Misunderestimated again: Bush and recovery from KatrinaBy Thomas Lifson
George W. Bush is well—accustomed to his political opponents handing him the invaluable asset of their misplaced contempt for his abilities. An overconfident enemy is a blessing to any strategist. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, members of his own coalition are beginning to express dismay and outright anger over his response, particularly his willingness to spend vast amounts of the federal budget on palliation of the immediate suffering and the reconstruction of New Orleans and the affected areas of Mississippi and Alabama.
Enemies and allies alike are once again failing to understand that a highly—trained strategist is at work, and that the foundations are being established for the achievement of long—term goals. Let the approval ratings languish in the low forties; they mean no more than did Ronald Reagan's low approval ratings at certain moments. George W. Bush has his eyes on bigger goals, and understands the means by which they will be achieved.
As I wrote almost a year and a half ago,
The President's strategic goals remain remarkably consistent: 1) position America to win the War on terror (a goal thrust upon his presidency in 2001); 2) keep America's economy growing; 3) position the Republican Party to dominate American politics in the foreseeable future.
His response to Hurricane Katrina is being shaped by these three goals, as well as (and even more importantly) by the genuine humanitarian impulse to help fellow Americans and fellow souls when they are most in need. As a deeply religious man and a genuine compassionate conservative, the President would respond generously and vigorously under any circumstances. But he is doing so in a way which will also meet his strategic goals. The need to formulate and satisfy multiple consistent goals and prioritize actions accordingly is one of the key lessons that the first president in history to be expertly trained in management at Harvard Business School learned well, and has practiced over and over again.
Among the three meta—goals of the Bush Strategic Vision, number 1, victory in the War on Terror, is the most important overall (the future of civilization rides on it), but least relevant to recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Nevertheless, it is a consideration. Our sworn enemies as well as some of our more weasel—like supposed friends are standing ready to announce that America is reeling from this natural disaster, a 'pitiful, helpless giant,' to resurrect a Nixonian phrase. The appearance of weakness is a form of actual vulnerability in this war for hearts and minds all over the globe. Suicidal terrorists are encouraged by the belief that America is on the ropes, so a demonstration of our ability to bounce back vigorously from any setback is important to our long—run victory.
Goal 2, enhancing our economic performance, is being carefully and cleverly achieved in President Bush's response. Excessive regulation is one of the obstacles hobbling even better economic growth, and there is ample evidence that the President is using Katrina as a lever to allow loosening of counterproductive regulations. On September 8th, the Davis—Bacon Act, a cornerstone of union strength in the construction trades, was suspended in areas affected by the storm. Davis—Bacon requires that federally—financed construction projects pay so—called 'prevailing wages' (meaning above—market union wages) whether or not union members are involved in the work, and grossly inflates the cost of contruction wherever it is applied. Its suspension will function as a demonstration that federal construction costs can be dramatically reduced when the government gets out of the way of the efficient functioning of the marketplace. Moreover, Davis—Bacon has its origins in attempts to keep low wage blacks out of the construction trades, and still harms blacks in its application.
Expect further efforts to allow temporary deregulation of construction and other economic activities, such as useless lengthy environmental reviews. Moreover, there is a good chance for public school students evacuated elsewhere to be offered education vouchers for private schools, especially given the overcrowding of public schools in areas housing large numbers of evacuees. Any opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of vouchers is anathema to the education establishment. But they will be harder—pressed than usual to oppose them when the needs of Katrina victims are so pressing and obvious.
To the horror of many fiscally conservative supporters of the President, he is also opening the federal treasury wide at a time of large deficits. As Nick Danger has pointed—out, the President understands debt from the perspective of a financier, while many on the right approach debt as a moral offense. Debt, per se, is merely a fiscal tool, and in the long term structural environment of the global economy, America has access to a huge amount of government borrowing from overseas lenders who have at least as strong a need to loan to us as we have a need to borrow from them.
The President is correctly convinced that tax cuts are essential to our further economic growth. Although the absolute dollar amounts of our deficits and debt are large, as a percentage of our rapidly—growing economy, they are well within historic norms. Ronald Reagan was denounced for his deficit spending and tax cuts, yet sparked a historic turnaround of the miserable Jimmy Carter economy with no significant economic downside from his deficit spending. While substantial, future deficits present little threat to our welfare.
The need to rebuild both public infrastructure and private businesses and homes will spark a new construction boom, and contribute mightily to economic growth over the next few years. Federal financing of much of this activity will help keep the economy moving, while Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve make it clear that inflation will not be allowed to rear its ugly head.
Goal three, ensuring continued and expanded GOP political dominance, is also being furthered by the President's response. Consistent, supportive humanitarian assistance based on the principle that benefits should flow to victims, rather than to bureaucracies, will demonstrate to African Americans and others that Republicans are not mean—spirited racists. The slurs of rappers and media figures aside, money talks. The President and the GOP will inevitably chip away at the 90% Democrat vote share, as the benefits flow and people improve their lot in life.
Expect the President to supplement initial efforts with follow—up programs empowering individuals to build better lives for themselves and their families. By tying benefits to individuals as much as possible, as in school vouchers, the advantages of personal choice will be made clear to people whose habitual stance has been that of victims, accustomed to making demands rather than choices. Welfare reform has already demonstrated the happy effects of putting people in charge of their lives and getting them out of the imprisonment of dependence.
If Democrat—voting minorities do not return to New Orleans in massive numbers, there is every indication that Louisiana will become a GOP stronghold, just like its neighbors in the South. It is New Orleans votes that have sufficed to elect governors and senators of the Democrat persuasion, making Louisiana the anomalous Southern Democrat stronghold it has remained since the end of Reconstruction. An enhanced GOP majority in the Senate will be helpful in further re—population of the federal judiciary with those who believe the Constitution means what it says.
George W. Bush has more than three years left in office to implement this strategy. Let his enemies relax in the dubious assumption that they have him on the ropes. That belief has betrayed them many times in the past. It is his conservative allies who need to pay close attention, and understand that he knows and understands strategy in a way no other president ever has.
Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of The American Thinker.