Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Edwards, Obama, and Dodd improve their positions on Katrina

Attending school in the northeast, as I do, limits one’s ability to fight for Katrina recovery issues. Fortunately for me, the northeast means New Hampshire, giving me the rare opportunity to talk to presidential candidates about New Orleans and the pace of recovery there. To take advantage of this opportunity, I have spent the last several months grading the top candidates on their hurricane recovery proposals, and revising those grades when necessary. Today, it is necessary to revisit and revise the grades I originally gave Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Chris Dodd.

This post contains original analysis, as well as accounts of personal conversations with several candidates, and original audio of my conversation with Dodd.

I. An Explanation
II. John Edwards
III. Barack Obama
IV. Chris Dodd
V. Summary of Previously Reviewed Candidates (Biden, Clinton, Richardson)

(Picture Credit)

I. An Explanation

When examining a candidate’s hurricane recovery proposals, I pay attention only to what they have said or done as a part of their presidential campaign. Every candidate put out a press release (or ten) immediately following the storm and voted for the right recovery measures at the time, and most visited the city shortly after the storm, but the initial storm and resulting recovery issues are separate disasters. The recovery plan John Edwards put out in late 2005 was important in late 2005, but given that-then unforeseen needs and crises have since arisen, it is no longer relevant. I am looking at these people as candidates, not as prior office-holders or, in Edwards' case, activists. The question is, what are they doing NOW, and what are they proposing for the future? As such, I base my reviews on whether a candidate has put forth a comprehensive plan for the region, what that plan includes, if the plan is highlighted on their webpage and/or in their campaign speeches and interviews, whether or not they show an understanding of the root cause of recovery problems (red tape, incompetence), their knowledge of details (like the Road Home program, ACOE accountability, and specific recent FEMA mistakes), and how they answer direct recovery questions (do they actually talk about recovery, or do they just change the subject to talk about Bush’s initial response). So keeping that in mind, here are the revised grades for Edwards, Obama, and Dodd, as well as links to my reviews of the other three major Democratic candidates.

Disclosure: I am a strong supporter of Joe Biden, who is third on my list of Katrina candidates, behind Clinton and Edwards, neither of whom I will consider voting for in the primary.

II. John Edwards

I originally gave Edwards a C- over D+. Many of his supporters flamed me for ignoring his early focus on Katrina, but I viewed his call for volunteers as a wonderful example of cultural leadership, not political leadership. I argued that he did not discuss Katrina in his interviews, speeches, or online; that he did not criticize Bush for ignoring recovery in the SOTU address; and that his Lower Ninth Ward campaign kickoff offered only rhetoric and no policy proposals. I admired his passion for the issue, but said at the time, “We know how Citizen Edwards feels, but we don’t know what President Edwards would DO.”

As most Kossacks know, Edwards finally rectified this problem at the start of his “Road to One America” tour. His webpage says,

Edwards announced a three-part plan for rebuilding the city: (1) rebuilding infrastructure—housing, schools, and hospitals—that is built to last so that people have something to come back to, (2) creating jobs to bring them back , (3) making the city safe from storms—with levees that can withstand another Katrina, and strengthening public safety to keep residents safe from crime.

Each part includes several subpoints, which are building a new veteran’s hospital, improving local infrastructure (from businesses to mental health), increasing funding for housing, creating jobs and fighting corrupt contractors, fighting crime by improving education, and protecting the city by increasing levee strength and restoring wetlands.

I do have some problems with this proposal, but an announced plan is an announced plan, and it does generate substantive headlines for the issue. I am revising Edwards’ grade from a C- to an A. In truth, it is more deserving of an A-, but he is the only candidate to talk about restoring the wetlands, and as much I may otherwise dislike his campaign, for this I stand up and cheer, arms waving wildly. My first problem is that his campaign markets the recovery plan as part of his focus on poverty, despite things like FEMA failures, ACOE accountability, and evaporating wetlands all being very separate issues from poverty If the proposal contained more specifics (like creating a 9/11-style levee commission, fixing the Road Home program, putting more cops on the street, etc.), I would raise the grade to an A+. Edwards is a bit late to the party, but I’m no purist – better late than never.

III. Barack Obama

I initially gave Obama a C+. When I saw him in Durham, NH, he ducked a question about Katrina recovery, turning his attention instead to national poverty, completely ignoring the separate issue of rebuilding an entire region. Furthermore, at the time, his campaign website contained nothing on Katrina. His supporters squawked at me, pointing out his initial post-storm record, but remember, I’m looking at the campaigns, not the office-holders.

More recently, in a speech last week to the Essence Music Festival at New Orleans’ Superdome (viewable below) and in an audio interview at, Obama began to hint at an actual recovery plan. He has said that rebuilding New Orleans should be at the top of the national agenda and lets into Bush for not pushing it, but he still seems short on specifics. Now, I agree with him about fighting crime and poverty through education, and it’s wonderful to hear a presidential candidate talk about improving infrastructure across the country (our bridges need much work!). And he’s right, poverty, joblessness, and crime did exist before Katrina – but such answers do not address the very specific subject of rebuilding an entire region. He did take a subtle swipe at the red tape and incompetence of the Road Home program, and when I saw him speak in Durham he called for a repeal of the matching funds requirement (which has since happened), but those are the only specific details I have heard him tackle. He has not put forward a comprehensive plan like Clinton and Edwards, and he does not stick to the subject when asked about it like Biden does. He includes his Senate votes on Katrina in the poverty section of his website, just like Edwards. Katrina is also the last issue on the poverty page, at the end of a very long read where few will notice it. And of course, these are only past Senate votes, not information about current recovery issues and how Obama would fix them as President.

Nevertheless, this is more than we’ve seen from him before, so I’ll raise his C+ to a B-. But he does lag behind.

(Clinton also spoke at Essence Fest, but she was discussing her already-presented plan, adding nothing new to the A I already gave her.)

IV. Chris Dodd

My review of Chris Dodd was based on his answer to a question I asked at a New Hampshire town hall meeting in February, and the lack of Katrina information on his webpage. I gave him my lowest grade, a D-, because while he did show he cared about rebuilding New Orleans and understood its importance, he also demonstrated a complete lack of understanding the issue and its details.

I spoke with the Senator a second time in April (my apologies for taking so long in writing about it). In between the two meetings (and the second meeting really was more of a conversation, you can watch it below), he had finally traveled to New Orleans, and had paid attention to Senator Mary Landrieu’s recovery hearings. He also held his own hearings into the insurance laws surrounding Katrina. He demonstrated a remarkable grasp of the insurance issues, but that’s all he demonstrated, and it defined the way he viewed the issue. He didn’t seem to know much about the Road Home program, FEMA, the ACOE, etc. Then, at last month’s PBS debate, when asked about Katrina recovery, he talked about the importance of New Orleans, but again gave no specifics. Nevertheless, some details are better than none, and he has seen the devastation for himself, so I will raise his grade from a D- to a C-. I grew up in Willis, TX where a D was no different than an F, so at least Dodd passes now.

Here is the “video” of our second conversation. I use quotes because it’s actually a video of our feet – the camera was aimed at the floor, so treat this more as audio. First he talks about insurance, and then I tell him about the Road Home program.

V. Other Candidates
A brief summary of my earlier reviews for the other three viable candidates:

Clinton’s A comes from the fact that she has introduced the most comprehensive, as well as the first, Katrina recovery plan. She has continued to highlight this plan throughout her campaign, impressing me greatly.

Richardson, on the other hand, tried to talk to me more about the initial storm than current recovery, but did offer a few specifics when I pressed him. You can watch our conversation here. Unfortunately, at the PBS debate, he showed us a lack of understanding surrounding Katrina facts – he said we should waive the requirement that local governments match 10% of FEMA expenditures. That was done, however, a month before the debate. He does offer a few more specifics than Dodd, however, so he gets a B-.

Biden’s B+ comes from a conversation I had with him. Though he has not offered a comprehensive recovery plan, he did show me a remarkable understanding of the root cause behind recovery issues (red tape, lack of communication, etc.), did not try to change the subject to the initial storm, and was very well-versed on details surrounding NOLA crime and law enforcement. (Disclosure: Though he may rank third on my NOLA list, I will definitely be voting for Biden in the New Hampshire primary next year.)

Candidates on NOLA
Clinton: A
Edwards: A
Biden: B+
Richardson: B-
Obama: B-
Dodd: C-
All the candidates address Katrina at the third debate (PBS)

1 comment:

Joseph said...

Very good work, Nathan.
I put you on my blogroll.