"Brownie, You're Doing a Heck of a Job"

Publish Date: 
Monday, September 12, 2005

Two weeks after one of the greatest disasters in American history, the man who blew it, who lied about his qualifications, still sits in his job. Yes, he is no longer in charge of the Hurricane relief efforts, but Congress just appropriated $50 billion to the agency he leads to run the reconstruction of New Orleans and a new hurricane looms off the Carolina coast. FEMA is a failed agency, a dumping ground of political hacks, unable to do what it is supposed to do today - and now it is being given responsibility for a reconstruction project it has no capacity to manage. And our good friend Mike Brown is still in charge.

The story of Mike Brown reveals a great deal about the state of modern conservatism in America today. For all their billions spent, and unchecked power here in Washington, the conservatives have still not proven they can govern the country. We know they are awfully good at politics, campaigns, spinning, positioning, framing, attacking their opponents, playing the "blame game." They are just aren't very good at this governing thing.

"Cleaning up the mess" of thousands of Brownies is now the primary task before the nation and its leaders. Let's look at some of the main challenges facing our intrepid country:

Restoring government's capacity to give Americans the tools they need for the new century - a purposeful strategy to drive down government revenue and increase spending has left our government in a crippled and dangerous fiscal position. Our unprecedented deficits and borrowing from abroad were unsustainable prior to Katrina, but we’ve now added at least $250 billion to an already broken budget. With increased defense spending and Iraq and Katrina taking trillions in the next few years, bringing our spending and income in line will be hard enough. But we still have very little money, if any, to invest in other urgent social priorities like helping America move to energy independence, combating global climate change, fixing our unsatisfactory health care system, a national effort to give our kids and workers better skills to succeed in the hyper-competitive global economy or helping America play catch up in providing broadband and wireless internet access to ourpeople.

The dangerous erosion of the economic position of the middle class is only one reflection of the administration's failure to respond to the rapidly evolving global economy. While corporate profits have returned, and the wealthy have benefited from historic tax breaks, the middle class has seen its income retreat to 1997 levels while the cost of many essentials - borrowing, health care, energy, transportation - have risen dramatically.

Cleaning up Iraq, winning the war on terror and improving our standing in the world - Bush's foreign policy has been a remarkable failure. Bin Laden lives and terrorist attacks are increasing. Iraq is more likely to become our version of the Soviet Union's experience in Afghanistan than a democratic beachhead in the Middle East. We seem to have no strategy for dealing with Iran, North Korea and the rise of China. We have become dangerously dependent on foreign central banks to fund the basic operations of the government while weakening the capacity of the world to take collective action on common problems, whether economic, environmental or for our collective security. We have sent very mixed signals on our commitment to liberalized trade, alienated traditional and important allies and damaged our image as a benevolent force in the world, one of the most important assets Bush inherited that has been depleted during his time.

And, needless to say, by turning the agency in charge of our preparedness and response to emergencies like 9/11 - the central mission of the conservatives these past few years - over to a bunch of unqualified political hacks they demonstrated to the world - including our adversaries - that we are not ready.

That brings us back to Brownie. Brownie. Only in Bush's world where spin and politics trumps good and sound government is Brownie doing a heck of a job. Our government is failing in its most essential responsibilities - creating broad-based prosperity, managing our finances, keeping us safe, meeting new challenges as they arise. The coming debate over who rebuilds New Orleans and how it is rebuilt must become a surrogate for who runs the country and how it is run, when the gang in there today has created a New Orleans-like mess throughout our government.

The mess Bush, the Brownies and the conservatives have left us is a big one. For all their billions spent conservatism is still more of a critique than a governing philosophy - still more a political than a governing success, more Tammany Hall than New Deal. What has failed these past few years is not just Bush, but the modern conservative approach itself. Faced with the responsibility of governing, something progressives excelled at for much of the 20th century, the conservatives have shown how intellectually immature and ill-prepared for primetime they are. They have may have had many ideas these modern conservatives, but they have been bad and ineffective ones, and we will all be paying the price for a long, long time.

In that sense Brownie is more a manifestation of their approach to government than an aberration, which is why they have been so slow to fire him. He is long on politics, short on effectiveness and slow to use government to meet the challenges right in front of us.

It did not have to be so, but it is. We've been told we were getting strong leaders with great vision and what we've gotten is a bunch of Brownies. It is time for sensible and responsible people from both parties to start working together to chart a new course and clean up the mess 21st century conservatism has left behind.