Will Bush Deliver?

By PAUL KRUGMAN

New York Times

October 10, 2005

Ever since President Bush promised to rebuild the Gulf Coast in "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen," many people have asked how he plans to pay for that effort. But looking at what has (and hasn't) happened since he gave that speech, I'm starting to wonder whether they're asking the right question. How sure are we that large-scale federal aid for post-Katrina reconstruction will really materialize?

Bear with me while I make the case for doubting whether Mr. Bush will make good on his promise.

First, Mr. Bush already has a record of trying to renege on pledges to a stricken city. After 9/11 he made big promises to New York. But as soon as his bullhorn moment was past, officials began trying to wriggle out of his pledge. By early 2002 his budget director was accusing New York's elected representatives, who wanted to know what had happened to the promised aid, of engaging in a "money-grubbing game." It's not clear how much federal help the city has actually received.

With that precedent in mind, consider this: Congress has just gone on recess. By the time it returns, seven weeks will have passed since the levees broke. And the administration has spent much of that time blocking efforts to aid Katrina's victims.

I'm not sure why the news media haven't made more of the White House role in stalling a bipartisan bill that would have extended Medicaid coverage to all low-income hurricane victims - some of whom, according to surveys, can't afford needed medicine. The White House has also insisted that disaster loans to local governments, many of which no longer have a tax base, be made with the cruel and unusual provision that these loans cannot be forgiven.

Since the administration is already nickel-and-diming Katrina's victims, it's a good bet that it will do the same with reconstruction - that is, if reconstruction ever gets started.

Nobody thinks that reconstruction should already be under way. But what's striking to me is that there are no visible signs that the administration has even begun developing a plan. No reconstruction czar has been appointed; no commission has been named. There have been no public hearings. And as far as we can tell, nobody is in charge.

Last month The New York Times reported that Karl Rove had been placed in charge of post-Katrina reconstruction. But last week Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, denied that Mr. Rove - who has become a lot less visible lately, as speculation swirls about possible indictments in the Plame case - was ever running reconstruction. So who is in charge? "The president," said Mr. McClellan.

Finally, if we assume that Mr. Bush remains hostile to domestic spending that might threaten his tax cuts - and there's no reason to assume otherwise - foot-dragging on post-Katrina reconstruction is a natural political strategy.

I've been reading "Off Center," an important new book by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, political scientists at Yale and Berkeley respectively. Their goal is to explain how Republicans, who face a generally moderate electorate and have won recent national elections by "the slimmest of margins," have nonetheless been able to advance a radical rightist agenda.

One of their "new rules for radicals" is "Don't just do something, stand there." Frontal assaults on popular government programs tend to fail, as Mr. Bush learned in his hapless attempt to sell Social Security privatization. But as Mr. Hacker and Mr. Pierson point out, "sometimes decisions not to act can be a powerful means of reshaping the role of government." For example, the public strongly supports a higher minimum wage, but conservatives have nonetheless managed to cut that wage in real terms by not raising it in the face of inflation.

Right now, the public strongly supports a major reconstruction effort, so that's what Mr. Bush had to promise. But as the TV cameras focus on other places and other issues, will the administration pay a heavy political price for a reconstruction that starts slowly and gradually peters out? The New York experience suggests that it won't.

Of course, I may be overanalyzing. Maybe the administration isn't deliberately dragging its feet on reconstruction. Maybe its lack of movement, like its immobility in the days after Katrina struck, reflects nothing more than out-of-touch leadership and a lack of competent people.