At one point, Right Wing pundits and Congressional apologists for George Bush, desperate to protect the President from having to take responsibility for his own failures, tried to blame the disaster in New Orleans on poor people.
The problem was, they said, that those darn poor people didn't have the sense to get rich enough ahead of time to afford cars so they could flee the city. Poverty being always only the result of bad character, the poor of New Orleans suffered from their own bad character as much as from the hurricane and more than from the Bush Leaguers' incompetence, inaction, and carelessness.
This apparently didn't play so well. Even if you buy the argument that most poor people are poor simply because they are too lazy to be anything else, leaving children, old people, sick people, and the occasional tourist to swim for it just because they had the bad luck to be related to deadbeat dads and welfare queens probably struck even the most Scrooge-like of conservatives as, well, too Scrooge-like.
The plan now seems to be to go back to blaming the local Democratic officials, like Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin, and if that doesn't work, spread the blame so widely that only a little of it butters George Bush.
But this frustrates some of the true believers who just can't bear to let the poor off the hook. The ever-ingenious Rich Lowry of the National Review has found a way to blame the poor indirectly. He blames Liberal social programs for keeping the poor poor.
I'm surprised no one thought of it before this. It's another old song from the Republican repertoire. The poor are poor because of their own bad character, goes the chorus, of course, but the verse is like this: Liberal government programs encourage, foster, and make virtues out of the vices that keep the poor poor. You know, because not letting their children starve, not leaving them to attend rotten schools, not letting the old and young die of treatable diseases, not forcing them to live in squalid housing, all that just makes them lazy and dependent and (shhhh) shiftless.
At this point, a good small-government conservative who knows his hymn book will sing out that after all these years of Liberal social programs, poor children still go hungry, their schools are still rotten, the young and old still have no reliable medical care, and their homes are often squalid, no better than shacks in some places, lost amid noxious slums in others.
Lowry is just such a well-versed good churchman:
New Orleans was partly a catastrophe of the welfare state, which has subsidized inner cities with countless billions of dollars throughout the past 30 years, with little to show for it except more social breakdown.
Lowry meant 40 years, I'm sure. He just can't face the fact that more than a generation has passed since Lyndon Johnson's time. Must be a Baby Boomer.
Now, of course, the implication of this argument is that if you can't guarantee a Utopia then you should not bother to even try to fix any problems. Another way of saying it is that if you can't save everybody, you might as well let everybody drown, which was apparently the thinking behind locking the doors to steerage aboard the Titanic.
But besides the argument's basic cruelty, there is its historical amnesia.
Missing from the argument is any memory of Richard Nixon, benign neglect, Ronald Reagan, soaring deficits, Newt Gingrich, and two George Bushes.
Apparently there have been no Republican governors or Republican-controlled state legislatures either.
The argument depends on ignoring the fact that over the last 40 years the Republicans have either run the government or had a strong enough hand in the running of it that they have been able to thwart, sabotage, stymie, underfund, pervert, or plain mismanage just about every meaningful large-scale "Liberal" big goverment social program.
To hear the Republicans tell it, and then believe them, you have to live in an alternate universe in which Hubert Humphrey beat Nixon, Jimmy Carter won a second term, Walter Mondale found the beef and followed up Jimmy with two terms of his own, and Bill Clinton, with no raging deficit to get under control and no Republican Congressional majority to get in his way, was able to insitute universal health care, expand and not end Welfare, and just generally give us the Village that Hillary says it takes, and that somehow all this led to exactly the same conditions the poor find themselves in this Republicans-ascendent universe.
The way things are now, the way big government social programs work now, or fail to work, is the result of deliberate Republican sabotage. As Matt Yglesias points out in TAPPED, whenever they can, the Republicans choose the option that looks like it will do the worst job.
This is the basic dilemma the right faces. It's committed to the view that the government shouldn't help poor people. But things happen from time to time that make it politically imperative to do something to help poor people. And if the government responded to those circumstances in ways that were efficient and effective, that would generate more political momentum for further poor-helping measures. Thus, the right finds itself forced to implement policies it knows to be ineffective.
I call the sabotage deliberate but in a lot of cases it's also unconscious. Republicans don't know they're out to wreck things because a.) they tell themselves out loud over and over again enough times so that the believe it that they are doing what's best for the poor in the long run and b.) what drives them at all times, in all their choices, including inspiring their antipathy to helping the poor, is their absolute horror at the thought of paying taxes---they quite often make the wrong choice, pick the policy that will not work or work well, because it is the cheapest!
This is another way they are able to cover their heartlessness with a veneer of virtue. They aren't being greedy and uncharitable. They are being thrifty and prudent.
But whether they are consciously or unconsciously doing it, the effect is the same and the motivation is the same, get the government out of the way of their making every single last dime they can imagine making.
If the Goverment is a car setting out to give every one a ride to work, then for 40 years the Republicans have been puncturing the tires, pouring sand in the gas tank, stealing the distributer cap, and, whenever they can get their hands on the wheel, driving it straight into the nearest ditch and then, pointing to the wreckage as the tow truck backs up to it, saying, See, this proves that people were meant to walk.
And they do this so that they don't have to chip in on gas.