Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jindal's out-of-touch gov't-bashing -

Gov. Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana Republican, did a credible job giving his party's response to President Barack Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress. Delivering the response is always a difficult assignment since the president has all the trappings of his office, including the pomp and circumstance of his grand entry into the House chamber.

Jindal appeared comfortable in the role and looked the part of a credible Republican presidential candidate, which he isn't officially, but most everyone expects him to be, perhaps as soon as 2012.

The speech, however, had its jarring moments.

For instance, Jindal told a Hurricane Katrina story about a county sheriff who encountered bureaucratic interference as he tried to get rescue boats into the floodwaters.

Jindal said:

Let me tell you a story. During Katrina, I visited Sheriff Harry Lee, a Democrat and a good friend of mine. When I walked into his makeshift office, I'd never seen him so angry. He was literally yelling into the phone: "Well, I'm the sheriff, and if you don't like it, you can come and arrest me!" I said, "Sheriff, what's got you so mad?" He told me that he'd put out a call for volunteers to come with their boats to rescue people who were trapped on their rooftops by the floodwaters. The boats were all lined up and ready to go when some bureaucrat showed up and told them they couldn't go out in the water unless they had proof of insurance and registration.

And I told him, "Sheriff, that's ridiculous." Before I knew it, he was yelling into the phone, "Congressman Jindal is here, and he says you can come and arrest him too!" Then he just told those boaters, "Ignore the bureaucrats and go start rescuing people."

There's a lesson in this experience. The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and the enterprising spirit of our citizens. We're grateful for the support we've received from across the nation for our ongoing recovery efforts.

It's worth noting that Jindal never says it was a federal bureaucrat though that's clearly the impression he wants to leave. Is that because it was a Louisiana bureaucrat? No doubt reporters will be chasing down this story to get that and additional details.

A bigger point. Many critics have sad that one of the lessons to draw from the Katrina aftermath is that it's dangerous to denigrate government because that leads to the kind of dysfunction we saw following Katrina.

When the legitimate functions of government are trivialized, or when government is seen as not as important as the private sector, that makes it much easier to reach the point where you have an emergency management neophyte like Michael "Brownie" Brown running FEMA and a president not paying as much attention as he should to his administration's preparedness and response to a major disaster, as happened with former President George W. Bush.

It's important to recall that it was helicopter-borne Coast Guard rescue crews who conducted hundreds of rescues. And it was with the arrival of Gen. Russell Honore and the U.S. military that seemed to mark a turn for the better in New Orleans.

Whether it's popular to say or not, it took something of a bureaucracy to orchestrate all of that.

Meanwhile, local and state officials at the time knew they were overwhelmed by the size of the disaster and that they needed federal help. Indeed, the problem they had was that federal resources weren't getting to where they were needed soon enough.

And the levees that everyone hopes will prevent a repeat of Katrina are of course repaired and maintained by another federal bureaucracy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Now, with the nation's economy beset by forces that are too large for the private sector alone to fight, the need for an effective government has never been greater.

So Jindal's dismissing of government's role seemed entirely out of touch with reality partly because he's the governor of a state that suffered greatly after the federal government's disaster-response abilities were allowed to erode.

But his remarks also seemed decoupled from the realities of the moment, a time when many Americans are turning to government for help, when even whole industries like banking and autos are coming to Washington as supplicants because the forces besetting them are larger than even the private sector can manage.

It also seemed odd for the governor of a frequently hurricane threatened state to belittle the need for volcano-monitoring. If anyone should understand the risk nature can represent to large population centers, it's a Louisiana governor.

Of course, Jindal mentioned volcano-monitoring as a wasteful spending because he needed to justify his public position that he would refuse some of the stimulus money in some way.

Many observers believe Jindal is taking his current stance more from a desire to be in the best position to win the eventual argument with other potential Republican presidential candidates over who is the most fiscally conservative than it has to do with volcanoes.

Jindal was strongest at the end when he used Obama's own fear-mongering against the president:

You know, a few weeks ago the president warned that our country is facing a crisis that he said, in quotes, "we may not be able to reverse." Now, our troubles are real, to be sure. But don't let anyone tell you that we cannot recover. Don't let anyone tell you that America's best days are behind her. This is the nation that cast off the scourge of slavery, overcame the Great Depression, prevailed in two world wars, won the struggle for civil rights, defeated the Soviet menace and responded with determined courage to the attacks of September 11th, 2001.

The American spirit has triumphed over almost every form of adversity known to man. And the American spirit will triumph again. We can have confidence in our future, because amid all of today's challenges, we also count many blessings. We have the most innovative citizens, the most abundant resources, the most resilient economy, the most powerful military and the freest political system in the history of the world.

My fellow citizens, never forget we are Americans. And like my dad said years ago, Americans can do anything.

Even the Obama White House appears to be acting from concern that the president, who trumpeted hope so much during the campaign, might have overdone the use of fear, warning of potential economic "catastrophe," to get his $787 billion economic stimulus package through Congress.

Obama left himself somewhat vulnerable to charges that he was talking down the economy, panicking the financial markets or further depressing the nation's collective psyche. So Jindal did what he needed to do to exploit it.

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