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September 09, 2005

Conservatives out of Touch with Middle America?

The New York Times has a fascinating piece this morning highlighting federalism's role in the sluggish response to Katrina. At one point the Bush administration considered seizing control of the relief effort via the “Insurrection Act.”

Best quote of the article:

Can you imagine how it would have been perceived if a president of the United States of one party had pre-emptively taken from the female governor of another party the command and control of her forces, unless the security situation made it completely clear that she was unable to effectively execute her command authority and that lawlessness was the inevitable result?
Wouldn't that have been most ironic? Democrats arguing against federal intervention?I’m with Mickey Kaus on this one.
Why should there be any doubt that the President can take command of a relief effort within our own country?

When things screw up, these days, we hold the president and the federal government responsible. It follows that the president and the federal government should have the power to stop things from screwing up.
Sort of what I was getting at with this post. I believe that Mickey's point of view is shared by a vast majority of Americans. No doubt many conservatives, ensconced in their nuanced ideological positions, will dismiss my comments in defense of federalism. But I urge them to consider Mickey's very simple question, "Why should there be any doubt...?"

A slew of recent polling shows that a majority of Americans think the President has done a poor job in responding to Katrina. When many respected polling firms report similar numbers on highly similar questions, you can bet that they reflect the "true" opinion of the population. Visit Mystery Pollster and keep scrolling. It's all there.

On many issues - partial birth abortion, gay marriage, the role of church and state, etc - Democrats are clearly out of touch with middle America. The worst part is that they seem blind to their disconnect. I fear that on the very important question of federalism and emergency response, Conservatives are equally out of touch and equally blind.

Posted by Rick at September 9, 2005 10:17 AM

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Thanks for your thoughtful post. We differ.

To accuse conservatives for being out of touch or, "ensconced in their nuanced ideological positions," for believing in the rule of law is a bit naive. We can throw the Constitution out, if that's the position that you take--but I don't think you really want to do that. Instead, you argue that extenuating circumstances justify a violation of law. Here, I disagree.

No where in the Constitution is there mention of relief from natural disasters. Instead it is the primary responsibility of states as given in the 10th amendment. The US Code allows for the president the call out the national guard, but to do so without the consent of the governor would be both insulting and could have ignited a Constitutional crisis.

To argue that the ends would have justified the means is always dangerous and quite liberal. It has the smell of a 'living constitution'. Would it have worked this time?--maybe not. What if the national guard would have been killed? This is an interesting thought...let me think on it and visit RightFaith later for a post on it.

Be careful before jumping on this bandwagon. The goal for this effort is to derail the Bush agenda for the next three years--not solve problems and make things better for future years.

Posted by: JR @ RightFaith at September 9, 2005 11:11 AM

JR thank you for your comments. I too believe in the rule of law. I’m suggesting that whatever steps are necessary to empower the President to take charge in a catastrophic event that has national implications, those steps should be taken. I’m not talking throwing out the Constitution. Amend it? Perhaps. My earlier post on this subject

I live in San Diego. We have perhaps the most incompetent local government in the entire country. The Mayor resigned and two City Councilmembers are headed to jail for a few years. I certainly don’t want them in charge. What if the governor runs around like a chicken with his head cut off?

I think the President should be given whatever power necessary to handle response if the locals prove themselves inept. That’s all. The power should be there. It should be clear and unambiguous. Right now, it is not clear.

As for the “ensconced in their nuanced ideological positions” – The left and the right both have these positions. It’s when these positions conflict with the values or beliefs of America at large that the party becomes “out of touch.” I think that a large swath of America believes that when local government proves itself incompetent or incapacitated, the President should have the legal authority to intervene. I know you may disagree with me, but you, and other conservatives that hold your view, are facing what appears to be a supermajority of Americans who disagree with you. That is, by my definition, out of touch.

Posted by: Rick Brady at September 9, 2005 11:54 AM

I question whether a "supermajority" of Americans actually believe the federal government should have intervened over the authority of the state and local governments. To the extent the polls may show this I think it's because the media have been unrelenting in attempting to blame everything from the hurricane itself, the maintenance of the levees, preparations, and the recovery on the Bush administration. Having lived in Miami for 30+ years I've seen many hurricane warnings come and go as well as a genuine disaster with Andrew. We also have our share of incompetent politicians. But I've never seen a President on TV urging evacuations or explaining available shelters. It's always the Mayor and the Governor. And provision is always made to transport those in mandatory evacuation areas who cannot otherwise get to a shelter. It is the responsibility of the local and state governments to make provision for and to deal with the aftermath of these situations for the first 48-72 hours. They are in the position to best know the needs and resources in their area. There are relief organizations, such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army, ready to stand in to help them. (In New Orleans they were blocked from entering the city the day after the storm.) If local and state governments believe someone else will do this job for them in those first days they will be less likely to make adequate preparations. It's up to the local and state populations to demand that their elected leaders live up to their duties.

Posted by: Carol at September 9, 2005 12:35 PM

I'll say more on this later, but I do believe that the Framers of the Constitution would have something to say about a "supermajority." I would likely agree.

Posted by: Matt at September 9, 2005 01:08 PM

Carol, you raise many good points, but I'm not sure they counter a specific point I am trying to make.

Specifically, I'm raising the question of "authority" as we look to the future. As I wrote in my comment above, "I think the President should be given whatever ***power*** necessary to handle response if the locals prove themselves inept. That’s all. The power should be there. It should be clear and unambiguous. Right now, it is not clear."

Having the power and deciding when to exercise it are two different things.

If given the "facts" about the situation, the proportion of Americans who blame Bush for Katrina would likely drop significantly. Many would say, "I did not know that the President didn't have the power to intervene more forcefully, therefore, how can I blame him?" However, the next question should be, "Should the President have the power to intervene?"

From the polling, it seems clear that the public thinks the President ought to be empowered.

Actually, I believe that increased education of our federalist system would only *increase* the proportion of Americans who think the President *OUGHT* to have clear authority to intervene when the country is faced with a future Katrina.

Why does the President have to consider citing an obscure "Insurrection Act" to intervene? Absurd.

Katrina, while devastating locally, is of national significance and should therefore demand a nationally led response. We are no longer a nation of states. We are nation of regions. This disaster struck an entire region of our nation. The President should be empowered to overrule locals ***IF*** they demonstrate themselves to be inept, which I believe is the case with Katrina.

Posted by: Rick at September 9, 2005 01:18 PM

When you give the government more power, they'll take it and you lose freedom. What you may be asking for is a Patriot Act for natural disasters.

I don't want to give the federal government that power. Do you?

Don't forget, some positions are right regardless of how popular they are.

Posted by: JR @ RightFaith at September 9, 2005 01:43 PM

And what if the federal government demostrates themselves to be inept, yet they choose to overrule a competent local government? As I mentioned in this post, once the feds get a certain power, do you think they'll responsibly reign themselves in. Our Founding Fathers certainly didn't think so.

Posted by: Doug Payton at September 9, 2005 02:05 PM

There is certainly a trade off.

When a disaster of national implications strikes this nation, citizens of this country should be able to hold the leaders accountable for their efforts to protect lives and property and facilitate recovery.

If the effects were completely localized, I would agree - it's a local issue. But the effects CLEARLY are not localized and therefore, as a voting citizen of this country, I want a say in how catastrophies of national significance are planned for. The only avenue I have for this is the federal avenue and I think the feds are well situated to handle disasters, if empowered.

And no, I'm not worried that I'll lose liberty. Losing liberty is having a Court overturn a bill banning the barbaric practice of partial birth abortion that was passed overwhelming by the citizens of this great land. Losing liberty is having a Court remove a war memorial from public property because it includes a cross that has been there for 50 years. Losing liberty is having a Court rule that a city can't lease land to the Boy Scouts for $1 per year in exchange for millions of dollars of upgrades and maintenace because they are a "religious" organization. I know all about losing liberty.

But empowering the president to take charge leading up to or following a natural disaster? Or empowering the feds to protect us from terrorisism through the Patriot Act? Those things don't bother me a bit. Sorry, but it just doesn't.

Now a rant...

Rush Limbaugh read a UPI story today of a Police Chief who closed the bridge into their town in advance of the storm. They heard the mandatory evacuation order from New Orleans and knew that the bridge was a major route out of NOLA, but they didn't want "those people" going through their town, so they closed the bridge. Because they were local, they had the authority to close the bridge and protect their community from whatever threat they felt was coming. Clearly, they thought the evacuees posed a greater threat than the hurricane.

This is an abomination. No local official should have the authority to make an individually rational, but collectively irrational decision like that.

In San Diego, we have a clearly defined region with Mexico to the south, the ocean to the west, Camp Pendelton to the north and the desert and mountains. The City of San Diego is surrounded by mostly exclusive suburbs. There are only three freeways entering and exiting our region. Two run south and merge before Tijuana. One runs east.

There are 19 fire chiefs and 19 Police Chiefs in my region, each with their own rice bowl, each taking orders from City Councils, Mayors, City Managers - How many cooks are there in the kitchen?

WAY WAY too many if there is ever an emergency that requires evacuation of millions of people.

San Diego has it easy. The Atlanta metro area has, I believe, 60 different local governments, each with their own layers of bureaucracy? That's insane.

Here's a possible middle ground solution. FEMA and DHS resources should be organized by metropolitan area. The resources could be pooled based on a clear emergency preparedness and evacuation plan for the region. That means, the region's entities would have to get together and agree upon a single chain of command for the region, perhaps with special powers granted to this command structure by the legislature that could be enacted by the President. The strucuture would involve multiple contingencies for how and when national guard and active duty military would be deployed.

The State and locals can determine what this command structure will look like, who will staff it, and how it will interface with the public, but since there are federal dollars at (either upfront, or as we see with Katrina, on the backside). But, the feds should give the final stamp of approval, so they hold ultimate responsibility. Again, we're talking about events with NATIONAL implications, so this shouldn't be a local rule issue.

Posted by: Rick Brady at September 9, 2005 04:44 PM

Dude, I'll say more later, but we have a constitution for a reason. Goodness.

Posted by: Matt at September 9, 2005 06:15 PM

We can change the Constitution for a reason too! It's outdated because it prevents the President from intervening when situations of national importance arise. Dude - that's why we have a President! To deal with issues of NATIONAL IMPORTANCE. You may disagree. That's fine.

The mantra was "No taxation without representation." The mantra remains, although now the term "taxation" means that local governments should not be allowed to "tax" the nation by making stupid decisions when their decisions affect millions upon millions of Americans who do not have local representation. If the President screws things up, I have a say in that!

Posted by: Rick at September 9, 2005 06:42 PM