Bush's Pledge? The Joke's on the Poor

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

October 13, 2005

A Page 1 article in The Times on Tuesday carried the following headline: "Liberal Hopes Ebb in Post-Storm Poverty Debate."

I might have started laughing if the subject weren't so serious. Who in their right mind - liberal, moderate, Rotarian, contrarian - could have possibly thought that George W. Bush and his G.O.P. Wild Bunch (Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Tom DeLay et al.) had suddenly seen the light ("Eureka! We've been wrong!") and become serious about engaging the problem of poverty in America?

The article noted that some liberal activists had hoped that the extraordinary suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina might lead to a genuine effort by the administration and Congress to address such important poverty-related matters as health care, housing, employment and race.

After all, the president himself had gone on national television from the French Quarter of the stricken city of New Orleans and promised "bold action."

"As all of us saw on television," said Mr. Bush, "there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality."

I assumed that most people watching the president realized that he was deeply embedded in a Karl Rove moment. The speech was a carefully scripted, meticulously staged performance designed primarily to halt the widespread criticism of Mr. Bush's failure to respond more quickly to the tragedy.

As the president spoke, it never occurred to me that anyone would buy into the notion that Mr. Bush and his supporters would actually do something about poverty and racism. Someone who believed that could probably be persuaded to make a bid on eBay to buy the Brooklyn Bridge.

Mr. Bush is the standard-bearer par excellence of his party's efforts to redistribute the bounty of the U.S. from the bottom up, not the other way around. This is no longer a matter of dispute. Mr. Bush may not be the greatest commander in chief. And he may not be adept at sidestepping the land mines of language. ("I promise you I will listen to what has been said here, even though I wasn't here.") But if there's one thing the president has been good at, it has been funneling money to the rich. The suffering wrought by Katrina hasn't changed that at all.

One of the first things the president did in the aftermath of Katrina was to poke his finger in the eyes of struggling workers by suspending the requirements of the Davis-Bacon Act in the storm-ravaged areas. Passed during the Great Depression, the law requires contractors on federally funded construction projects to pay at least the prevailing wage in the region.

This is one more way of taking money from the working poor and handing it to the wealthy. A construction laborer in New Orleans who would ordinarily be paid about $9 an hour, the prevailing wage in the city, can now be paid less. So much for the president's commitment to fighting poverty.

Poverty has steadily increased under President Bush, even as breathtaking riches (think tax cuts, cronyism, war profiteering, you name it) have been heaped upon those who were already wealthy. Class divisions are hardening, and economic inequality continues to increase dramatically.

Mr. Bush's political posturing (his speeches, his endless trips to the Gulf Coast) is not meant to serve as a beacon of hope for the downtrodden. It is a message to middle-class voters, who have become increasingly disturbed by the president's policies and were appalled by the fact that he seemed unmoved by the terrible suffering that followed Hurricane Katrina.

The man who campaigned as a compassionate conservative and then turned the federal government into a compassion-free zone is all but handing out press releases that say, "I care."

He cares all right. About his poll ratings. In the end, much of the money to help lower-income victims of the recent storms will most likely be siphoned from existing, badly needed and already underfunded programs to help the poor and near-poor.

A real effort to fight poverty and combat discrimination? From this regime? You must be joking.