Analysis: Flood crisis hits GOP, too

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  June 19, 2008 at 4:23 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 19 (UPI) -- U.S. President George W. Bush faces a new long-term challenge to his very philosophy of government in the levee and flooding crisis now developing along the Mississippi River.

The impact of the devastating Midwest floods and consequent threats to the levees and the communities behind them along the Mississippi will be to reverse the fashionable trend of downsizing government over the past generation in the United States.

As of Thursday morning, 11 levees along the lower Mississippi, the key trade and industrial artery of Heartland America, had been breached as a consequence of record flooding farther north centered on Iowa. And another five levees were believed to be at risk.

Mindful of the devastating criticism and loss in popularity and national credibility he suffered because of his administration's woefully inadequate, delayed and inept response to the Hurricane Katrina flooding of New Orleans in 2005, President Bush flew out to the region Thursday.

But it will take more than a presidential visit or a more competent and adequate response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deal with the long-term challenges to the Republican Party and its prevailing conservative philosophy of government that the current floods pose.

It was possible to argue in 2005 that Hurricane Katrina was not unprecedented but that the real fault lay in the failure of the Republican-controlled Congress and the Bush administration at that point to take seriously the traditional responsibility of Washington to maintain adequately the levees protecting communities along the lower Mississippi and the Gulf Coast.

Had the Louisiana levees around New Orleans been adequately maintained, Katrina should not have been of sufficient force to breach them and flood the city. But successive Congresses had slashed adequate funding for maintenance work on the levees -- and on much else -- for many years. An additional measure to slash even further funding from levee maintenance was actually being pushed through the GOP-run 109th Congress when New Orleans drowned.

Also, the now famous and extensively documented deterioration of FEMA during the Bush administration and its fate at the hands of a Bush political appointee who became notorious for discussing his Nordstrom-bought suits with a colleague by e-mail even as the crisis unfolded are now common knowledge.

The Katrina disaster played an important role in the Heartland swing that brought the Democrats back to control of both houses of Congress in 2006, ending 12 years of almost uninterrupted Republican control. The loss of the Senate, especially, was not anticipated by Republican congressional leaders.

However, even if the Bush administration in its final, lame-duck months performs better in responding immediately to the current Midwest and Mississippi flooding crisis, the long-term implications of the current disaster are far more serious for the party.

Federal government aid for flood prevention and crisis control on the Mississippi and in heartland America was not a product of Big Liberal Government in the 1960s or even of President Franklin Roosevelt's historic great expansion of the role of government in the 1930s: It goes all the way back to Calvin Coolidge, the most conservative, non-interventionist and "do nothing" of the three Republican presidents of the 1920s -- in his response to the very serious Mississippi flooding of 1927.

But the failure of the levees along the Mississippi shows the prevailing "do nothing" and "cut all the federal programs you can" philosophy that has dominated the Republican Party since the days of Ronald Reagan no longer will cut the mustard when levees are crumbled, rainfall and ensuing flood tides are unprecedented, and hundreds of Heartland communities are at risk.

The political times are indeed a-changin' along the lower Mississippi, and it is the record flood tides that are changing them.

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