Monday, September 19, 2005

Katrina States Must Not Go Red Again

Hurricane Katrina's toll on people and property in Louisiana and Mississippi is now well known, but whether or not this will become the political disaster that the Republican party so richly deserves remains to be seen.

While both Louisiana and Mississippi had been Democratic strongholds as part of the "Solid South" in the first half of the last century, the Republican party has owned these states since the Kennedy administration – when all Southern states seemed unable to abide by the positions taken by the Kennedy brothers and Lyndon Johnson in the Civil Rights movement. (To give you an idea of the South's intolerance toward all things Civil Rights, Strom Thurmond won Mississippi on the States' Rights presidential ticket with 87.2 percent of the vote in 1948.)

John F. Kennedy barely took Louisiana in 1960 with 50.4 percent of the vote and, since then, that state has only voted for Democratic presidential candidates three times – Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. With the exception of Jimmy Carter barely winning in 1976, Mississippi has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 50 years.

So what should the events of the last three weeks say to residents of these storm and FEMA-ravaged states?

Well, we know that the gun-toting, flag-waving GOP has historically been able to hold onto these states with a combination of lies and simply appealing to the lowest common denominator: "We will keep your taxes low, govern through religion, promote gun ownership for anyone older than a fetus, oppose Affirmative Action and, more than anything, we will keep you safe," they say.

The Bush administration appears to have kept its promises to Louisiana and Mississippi in some ways. They've obviously talked a lot about God and they've been able to convince even the poorest of American states that somehow Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy magically made their way into middle-class and lower middle-class wallets. Team Bush does indeed side with the NRA on every gun-related issue and it's no secret that the White House is no friend to Affirmative Action.

But while Southerners may find it easy to let George W. Bush off the hook for making us less safe via the Iraq war and by virtually ignoring the 9/11 Commission's recommendations, one would hope the federal government's abysmal response to Hurricane Katrina would wake them up.

At the very least, people in Louisiana and Mississippi should now be able to see that, when simply looking out for the most fundamental of their self-interests (such as pure survival), they need to rethink who gets their votes to run our federal government.

It is beyond dispute that George W. Bush bungled the response to Katrina both in advance – by appointing political hacks with no experience in disaster response to the top FEMA jobs – and in reacting to the massive hurricane's impact by sitting on his hands and doing nothing. This president couldn't even be bothered to come off his five-week vacation until over two days after the storm actually struck, despite all advance indications that this would indeed be one of the worst disasters in U.S. history. Vice-President Cheney remained on summer break through the scheduled conclusion of his vacation.

It is now a matter of fact that the Bush administration cut funding to repair and strengthen New Orleans' levy system – even though they were warned specifically of the exact consequences of a major hurricane on that city -- in favor of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.

And, because with Bush and his minions, it's always "about the Benjamins," Louisiana and Mississippi residents have just gotten a cold, hard slap in the face telling them that the Republican party most assuredly does not stand with them. Indeed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Mississippi and Louisiana rank first and second in the percentage of population living below the poverty level, with 21.6 percent and 19.4 percent, respectively.

Poor people, as well as those struggling financially and fighting to remain in the middle class in these two states, now have a crystal-clear indication that, even when the chips are down the most, the Republican party does not give a rat's behind about them. Whether it's minimum wage issues, health care or, as we've now seen, responding with even modest competence and concern to a major disaster, they cannot count on George W. Bush and the Republican party.

We've talked a lot about race in the last three weeks as it applies to Katrina response. Conservatives say that it is a red herring to suggest that the majority of people needing help after Katrina being black, had anything to do with the glacial pace of federal help after the disaster. But if we go to the U.S. Census bureau once again, we find the following states first and second in African-American population: Mississippi at 36.3 percent of total population and Louisiana at 32.5 percent.

And when even the most craven Bush supporter stares at the ceiling on a sleepless night, they know one thing: If Louisiana were not so poor and New Orleans in particular was not predominantly black, those levies might have been fixed to begin with and, certainly, the post-hurricane response would not have been so casual and negligent. Any American who honestly believes that 30,000 white people would have been allowed to languish for days in the Louisiana Superdome with no food, water or medical care is lying to themselves.

Louisiana and Mississippi have been voting for Republicans in national elections for a long time and, unless they are also victims of a bizarre, political form of battered wife syndrome, they need to cut the ties to that relationship. Republicans have never done well pretending to care about poor people and anyone who doesn't happen to be Caucasian. But now, the actions that led to the New Orleans disaster and the lack of response to all other areas savaged by Hurricane Katrina, spell out as plainly as possible that the GOP would not even throw most of the people in these two states a bottle of water if they were dying of thirst.

That will hopefully make for a lot of first-time Louisiana and Mississippi voters going Democratic in 2006 and 2008 and a conversion of people who used to vote Republican, but who now know that, for the sake of their own survival, they can't ever make that mistake again.