Friday, April 25, 2008

McCain displays lack of understanding in New Orleans, fails to meet with residents

(Original title: WTF: McCain blows it big time on Katrina recovery)

So the same day I make a nice post about John McCain, and one day before I was planning to make another one, he has to go and say a stupid thing like this.

McCain spent yesterday in New Orleans as part of his hard times tour. In a Lower Ninth Ward speech, he criticized the way Bush and the Bush administration handled the storm and its initial aftermath.

The Arizona senator walked a few blocks of the hard-hit Lower 9th Ward, passing tidy rebuilt stucco houses standing next to abandoned structures, their facades still spray-painted with the markings of rescue workers who went door to door nearly three years ago searching for bodies. FEMA trailers still dot the neighborhood. McCain said his teenage daughter Bridget had been there with a volunteer youth group a few weeks ago to help in the recovery.

"Never again, never again, will a disaster of this nature be handled in the disgraceful way it was handled," McCain declared… McCain was unsparing in his criticism of the Bush administration on Katrina, and said members of Congress must share some of the blame for putting money into pork-barrel projects when those dollars should have been used to fortify the region against disaster. He said his record was clean on that count, with a consistent opposition to wasteful spending.

Without mentioning Mr. Bush directly, McCain said that when Katrina struck, "If I had been president, I would have ordered the plane landed at the nearest base and I'd of been over here." He repeated that later, saying, "I would've landed my airplane at the nearest Air Force base and come over personally." McCain said the missteps of the Bush administration were well chronicled and undisputed, citing unqualified leaders, poor communication and a failure to recognize the dimensions of the problem.

Sounds, good right? Learning from past mistakes is huge; it helps us prevent future disasters. There’s not enough proactive forward-leaning thinking in this country, so what’s the problem? Isn’t McCain’s stance a good thing?

Well, his understanding of the past, yes. But his plans and vision for the future… not so much.

He also told reporters he was not sure if he would rebuild the lower 9th ward as president. "That is why we need to go back is to have a conversation about what to do -rebuild it, tear it down, you know, whatever it is,” he said.

There is so much wrong with this statement, I’m not seven sure WHERE to begin. I guess we’ll start with “have a conversation.” Senator – WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? The storm was almost three years ago!!! Do you think the citizens of Louisiana and Mississippi have been sitting around strumming their Gibsons, swilling their Abita? HAVE a conversation? We’ve BEEN having one for three years! Heck, even the Road Home program is pretty much wrapped up! Don’t believe me, go sit in on a Housing Committee hearing! Go talk to your colleague Mary Landrieu, she’s on top of things!

But there’s more: “Tear it down?” That’s downright un-American, we have private property rights! If the levees had been built to specification and properly maintained, and had the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet never been built (and we can close it), the Lower Ninth Ward would not have flooded. If people want to keep the land or house framework their family has owned for 70 years, who are you to stop them? Change the rules going into the future – take the proper precautions this time, mandate flood insurance, and tell folks there will be no government assistance the next time so that they’ve been warned – but don’t step on private property rights.

Yet the worst thing McCain said, I think, are those last five words: “You know, whatever it is.” Whatever it is? It’s been three years, have you really paid that little attention? Ok, ok, stupid question, but how can you be so oblivious to think that your audience – IN NEW ORLEANS – is equally oblivious?

Think New Orleans responds thusly:

You mean we’ve not had enough conversations already? The McCain administration is going to hit the ground talking? At least we now know what to expect. More canned civic engagement while the city moulders.

Basically, he doesn’t know what to do. The Lower 9th Ward will be rebuilt, because it is some of the highest, driest land in the city. The levee walls failed in such a way as to flood the Lower 9th Ward, but had the levees failed on the other side, the Faubourg Marigny would have got it just as bad. People don’t understand that the Lower 9th Ward is not low ground. It is high ground and prime real estate.

The question is whether the pre-flood inhabitants of the Lower 9th Ward are going to come back to their home, or if that land is going to be packaged and sold for redevelopment. The reclamation of the Lower 9th Ward by it’s inhabitants is looking increasingly less likely with the glacial pace of recovery in this neighborhood that the media has made iconic.

NBC's First Read reports that the Lower Ninth tour and press conference where he made these remarks was disorganized and chaotic, and may have missed the mark: "Several local residents complained there were no seats for hurricane survivors outside the church and no time carved out in McCain’s schedule for meetings with Ninth Ward residents." McCain's not one for meaningless photo ops, but campaigns have a way of changing people... or at least, of giving empty, black-hearted campaign aides and strategists too much power. The New York Times adds,

At least one citizen was disturbed by all the media attention, particularly by the lack of seats for local citizens at Mr. McCain’s 20-minute news conference. “We need to have an opportunity to have a meaningful dialogue,’’ said Mary Fontenot, who is with All Congregations Together, a church group working to rebuilding New Orleans. “Twenty minutes out on the lawn does not suffice, with a designated seating for traveling journalists."

Additionally, McCain has opposed the creation of an independent 9/11-style commission to investigate the failure of the levees, voted against a 2006 bill that included $28 billion in hurricane relief, and opposed Medicaid and unemployment benefits for Katrina victims. McCain’s defense is that the various bills had too much pork. Clinton and Obama get it, but for McCain, I guess stopping the 1% of the budget that may or may not be pork is more important than advancing any form of economic or social justice.

As the Fox News headline says, right on Katrina, wrong on New Orleans. I’m with McCain on climate change. I’m with McCain on respect and discourse. I’m with him on torture, campaign finance reform, and abortion.

But my God did he biff it on this one.


Jordan said...

Well to be fair he didn't spend six months working with the Episcopal Church cleaning things up. However, he's also concerned with long term, and as for private property rights he doesn't have the authority to change them for the lower ninth; even as president.

Nathan Empsall said...

First of all, he's a US Senator. He should have a staff keeping him abreast of the important issues - and I'd call 3 million relocated Americans an important issue - whether he spent three months working there himself or not. Second of all, even when he doesn't understand an issue, as I noted, he should be smart enough to realize that the conversation has already happened and that he shouldn't speak as if no one knows anything, especiall with that audience.

Executive agencies like HUD and FEMA have a lot of authority on what happens from here on out, and even if you're right and they don't, he was sure speaking like they do, so the criticisms of his position are still valuable.