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It's interesting, though not unexpected, what the Bush administration is trying to do (and succeeding in doing) - pinning the blame on local and state authorities, saying that there was no way they could have known what had happened, and even if they did, they had not been granted authority by those governments to help. Their two main fronts of attack seem to be:

(1) Claiming, via Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff, that they hadn't found out about the levee break until Tuesday, and, via president Bush, that nobody could have foreseen a levee breech.
Counterarguments: the levees were only built to withstand category three hurricanes, Katrina was a category four. City hall confirmed the breach of levee on Monday. It was Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff's job to know these things. That he didn't speaks volumes in itself. (A great article by CNN here.) President Bush's claim is too ridiculous to even need a counterargument by his point.

(2) Claiming that they didn't have authority to coordinate the relief efforts.
Counterarguments: The governor declared a state of emergency on August 26th. The White House had, just a few months ago, implemented the National Response Plan, which states that in the event of such disasters as hurricane Katrina, a proactive federal response is required, and that standard procedures regarding requests for assistance could be expedited and suspended. And in the Statement on Federal Emergency Assistance for Louisiana dated August 26th, it is written, in quite clear English, FEMA is authorized to identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency. The federal government had the authority, they just didn't have the leadership.

Visit TPMCafe: Pick Apart the White House's Buck-Passing (hell, the whole TPM site), and Daily Kos's Disastrous Response Timeline. Probably the most interesting thing I've seen is the following comment, because I've long thought that how you frame an issue is as important, if not more, than the facts you present. That's one area that the Republicans have mastered, and the Democrats have a lot of ground to cover to catch up with them, to change the public opinion.

Anyway, this appeared over at the TPMCafe:

I appreciate that everybody is overwhelmed and needs to blow off steam at the moment. But do it quickly, because there's work to do. At the moment there isn't much we can do to directly help the people in danger other than contribute money. But there's a battle being fought over how to interpret the New Orleans disaster. If the wrong frame gets put around it, all the problems will get papered over.

I've been trying to figure out the lessons that I want the public to learn from this horrible series of events, and some phrases to capture them. Think of this as a work in progress. Here's what I've come up with so far.

*The Post New Orleans World.

The right has gotten big mileage from talking about "the post-911 world". It's a world where everything looks different in the light of a catastrophic event. Well, a lot of things look different now in the light of New Orleans. We need to pull together a bunch of lessons of New Orleans" and tie it together under a sound-bite like "the post New Orleans world".

*It's "New Orleans" not "Katrina".

One framing battle is how to refer to the disaster. If you call it "Katrina" then you're implying that it's an act of God, an accident, nobody's fault. "New Orleans" implies that this was a foreseeable catastrophe that our leaders did not prepare for. "New Orleans" also focuses attention on the victims, not the cause. It links to the horrible images and stories coming from the Superdome and the convention center.

As a hurricane, Katrina is like Andrew or any of a number of hurricanes that have hit the US. A hurricane destroys, but it passes and then you rebuild. This disaster is unique because of the aftermath in New Orleans.

*Public investment is not waste.

The New Orleans disaster is a direct consequence of the attitude that government spending is bad, no matter what the money is buying.

*Bad infrastructure is not an accident.

Infrastructure failure always happens because of a stroke of bad luck. But bad luck is one of life's constants. Eventually, SOMETHING will go wrong. We need to connect the New Orleans levees to the crumbling infrastructure in the rest of the country. When bridges fail, when trains go off the rails, when waste storage sites leak -- this is all connected to our collective unwillingness to pay for infrastructure.

*The poor are not expendable.

The flooding of New Orleans has been predicted and envisioned for years. One piece of that vision all along was that the people who don't own cars or can't afford a tank of gas and a hotel room would stay in the city. In other words, it was foreseen that about 100,000 poor people would be caught in the flood. In not taking action, the government was thinking of this as an acceptable risk.

One important thing the Superdome has done is make the poor visible. Every day, people die in America because they fall through the cracks in one way or another. Now people are dying on camera. Eventually -- whether it's a week or several weeks -- we'll have the poor back out of sight again. Will anything have changed? Will we go back to assuming that risks to the poor are acceptable?

*The market can't replace government.

Some things have to be bought by the people as a whole. Their benefits can't be captured by individuals, and so can't be turned into products that the market can provide. No entrepreneur can profit by owning and operating a levee. No one could make money by busing the poor out of town before the storm and sheltering them in a safe place. No private insurance company can offer a product to protect you from what the people in the Superdome are going through. Can you imagine an insurance agent going in there and trying to figure out who his clients are? We need an agency that can go in and treat people like people, not making distinctions between my customers and yours, but giving food and water and shelter to whomever needs it.

*Remember the Superdome.

The Superdome has given us a dystopian image of where our society could be headed: The poor herded into a concentration camp where life is cheap. The Superdome has been a rorschach test. For the most part we haven't seen what goes on inside, so we are left to imagine what thousands of desperate, unsupervised, poor and (mostly) black people will do. Some people have visions of suffering while others have visions of violence. Switching back and forth from CNN to Fox has been amazing: Is the problem neglect and mismanagement, or is it that we don't have enough armed men on the ground to control the animals?

As I said, this is a work in progress. What are the other lessons?
What are the phrases we should be using to frame those lessons? Talk to your friends, write letters to the media, post to blogs, write letters to Congress, call the talk radio shows. The Right would like apply the Abu Ghraib model to this disaster: Maybe there were a few bad apples at the bottom, but as far as our leadership was concerned it was just bad luck -- policy had nothing to do with it, and there are no policy lessons to learn from it. We can't let that view take hold.

Doug Muder
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