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A National Turning Point?

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In a recent column in The New York Times, Paul Krugman poses a question that is less cynical and more sincere than it might at first appeal. “Future historians will, without doubt, see Katrina as a turning point,” he wrote. “The question is whether it will be seen as the moment when America remembered the importance of good government, or the moment when neglect and obliviousness to the needs of others became the new American way.”

In the past, such a cynical question could be answered positively with confidence. Today, unfortunately, the answer to that question is a matter of national soul-searching.

Just what kind of a country are we? Under this administration, policies have routinely and continuously passed that hurt the poor and favor the wealthy; they have benefited industry at the expense of our environment; they’ve worked to break down the public school system; have eroded our national infrastructure; depleted the nation’s armed forces and discredited the nation’s foreign policy on the world stage.

Yet this president seems to think truth makes no difference. Lies told to the public on matters of policy — foreign and domestic — have become legion. From the reasons to invade Iraq to denials about the prison abuse at Abu Ghraib, from Pat Tillman’s death to Jessica Lynch’s faked heroism; from the outing of Valerie Plame and the hollow conviction to oust whoever was responsible for that felony offense to the Department of Justice fiasco. Every cover-up and wrong-doing is denied by this White House, even when the evidence plainly shows otherwise. There appears to be no honor in truth-telling or accepting responsibility for mistakes and failed policies.

With the latest census data on income, poverty and health insurance, as Krugman points out, the report “by any normal standard was a devastating indictment of the administration’s policies … After all, last year the administration insisted that the economy was booming — and whined that it wasn’t getting enough credit. What the data show, however, is that 2006, while a good year for the wealthy, brought only a slight decline in the poverty rate and a modest rise in median income, with most Americans still considerably worse off than they were before President Bush took office.

“Most disturbing of all, the number of Americans without health insurance jumped. At this point, there are 47 million uninsured people in this country, 8.5 million more than there were in 2000 … Bush’s only concession that something might be amiss was to say that ‘challenges remain in reducing the number of uninsured Americans’ — a statement reminiscent of Emperor Hirohito’s famous admission, in his surrender broadcast, that ‘the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’ advantage.’”

Further eroding the public’s confidence in the national leadership, Krugman notes that “Mr. Bush’s solution (is) more tax cuts, of course, (which) has about as much relevance to the real needs of the uninsured as subsidies for luxury condos in Tuscaloosa have to the needs of New Orleans’s Ninth Ward.

The question Krugman poses again in a slightly different form, “is whether any of this will change when Mr. Bush leaves office.” And, again, it’s not clear that that positive forces will prevail.

“There’s a powerful political faction in this country that’s determined to draw exactly the wrong lesson from the Katrina debacle — namely, that the government always fails when it attempts to help people in need, so it shouldn’t even try,” Krugman writes. He notes that presidential candidate Mitt Romney, former Republican governor of Massachusetts, is touting such concerns, quoting Romney as saying: “I don’t want the people who ran the Katrina cleanup to manage our health care system,” as if, as Krugman writes, “the Bush administration’s practice of appointing incompetent cronies to key positions and refusing to hold them accountable no matter how badly they perform … is the way government always works. And I'm not sure that faction is losing the argument. The thing about conservative governance is that it can succeed by failing: when conservative politicians mess up, they foster a cynicism about government that may actually help their cause.

“But why should we be surprised by any of this? The Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina — the mixture of neglect of those in need, obliviousness to their plight, and self-congratulation in the face of abject failure — has become standard operating procedure. These days, it’s Katrina all the time.”

What’s really frightening is that it’s not that difficult to see how such negative thinking about the role of government could take hold among those Americans who elected George W. Bush in the first place. It’s hard for some voters to admit that their judgment was that far off; it’s easier — and allows them to avoid taking personal responsibility for electing him — to blame it on the system and to paint government as the failure.

Whether the nation rejects such conservative cynicism and reaffirms its faith in good government could be, as Krugman suggests, an historic turning point.

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