The only substance possibly more toxic than the thousands of barrels of oil that continue to gush daily into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s broken Macondo well is the flood of commentary spewing from the mouths and pens of U.S. Republicans and their allies in the partisan press. The right-wing talking point of the moment is that this spill has turned into “Obama’s Katrina,” marking the moment when the President’s fundamental inadequacies as a leader are laid bare for all to see. But that’s only when they aren’t blaming “government” itself, or at least the quaintly misguided left-wing conceit that government can do anything usefully at all.
There’s been no small amount of revenge-seeking by Republicans who have always felt Bush was treated unfairly over Katrina. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Dubya’s long-serving hit man Karl Rove pointed out that while Bush had to work through and with local authorities in Louisiana, the Gulf is an area of undisputed federal authority. He took great pleasure in turning Obama’s own words against him, suggesting the President might rue his complaint about Bush’s response to Katrina: “I wish that the federal government had been up to the task.”
Except the real lesson from Katrina was never about the obligatory cosmetics of federal leadership and the need for the president to be seen to be Fully Engaged in Doing Something. What made Katrina such a perfect symbol of Bush’s legacy was not that he was slow off the mark in taking charge. Rather, it was his cheerful indulgence of cronyism and you’re-doing-a-heckuva-job incompetence, which revealed the entire ideological thrust of his administration, namely that the federal government could never serve as a positive force in American life.
That essential point was made last week by Fox News commentator and former Mike Huckabee adviser Jim Pinkerton, who wrote on his blog that Obama has “finally confronted the reality that the federal government doesn’t work very well. Uncle Sam doesn’t have core competencies, he has core incompetencies.” This is, of course, just the latest version of the long-standing Republican gambit of denouncing the inadequacy of the very government they’ve been in charge of for most of the past 40 years. The strategy is always the same: once in power, start stuffing the most important agencies with partisan hacks who are either complete boneheads or actively hostile to the institution they serve. This ensures either regulatory failure or regulatory capture, which is subsequently used as proof that government is useless.
This is pretty much what happened with the Minerals Management Service, the agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior responsible for regulation of offshore oil drilling. As is now well known, the agency became thoroughly corrupted during the Bush years, to the point where dozens of MMS staff were caught doing drugs and sleeping with their counterparts from the energy industry—and that’s when they weren’t accepting free gifts and holidays from the companies they were supposed to be overseeing. Meanwhile, MMS scientists who raised concerns over the safety and environmental impact of proposed drilling projects were repeatedly muzzled by their bosses, even as energy companies were routinely permitted to more or less write their own inspection reports.
Occasionally, the Republican inclination to tweak the nose of their most loathed institutions results in pure comedy, as when Bush sent John Bolton to Turtle Bay to piss on all the rugs at the United Nations. But more often the result is nothing short of tragic.
While it has largely fallen out of the public’s interest, the methane explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 is in many ways even more scandalous than what is happening in the Gulf. The company responsible, Massey, had been repeatedly cited over the past few years for methane-related safety violations. Yet even though it was widely known to be running multiple unsafe operations, had one of the worst safety records in the country, had paid over US$4 million in criminal and civil fines for safety violations after a fire at another mine that killed two people in 2006, and had millions more in outstanding unpaid citations, the company was allowed to keep operating, and keep killing its workers.
Like the BP spill, the mine explosion happened under what was nominally Obama’s watch. But in both cases, the disasters were the inevitable failures of a regulatory apparatus that had been deliberately and systematically sabotaged under Bush’s two terms. That is why the BP spill is not even close to being “Obama’s Katrina.” If anything, it is George W. Bush’s Second Katrina—or, if you count the mine explosion, his Third Katrina. Or, if you count the regulatory capture of the SEC by Wall Street and the way permitting investment banks to self-regulate contributed to the mortgage crisis, his Fourth Katrina.
The question that should really be worrying Americans is just how many ticking time bombs the Republicans have left strewn throughout the federal regulatory infrastructure. Where will the next disaster strike? Which agency will be held responsible? The only certainty is that the longer the Democrats are in power, the easier it will be for Republicans to blame the President, or, ideally, blame the very idea of government.
This isn’t mere partisanship, it is nihilism. And it is pure poison in a democracy.