There is a perverse new meme brewing on the right, a riff on the apparent impotence of the Obama administration to stop the oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. It goes like this: some things are just too big and complex for the government to deal with. In fact, 21st century life itself has grown too complex and interconnected for government to deal with. So let’s scale back our expectations and our reliance on government to fix stuff. Just go with the flow, as it were.

At NRO, Yuval Levin dismissed the anger over the response to Hurricane Katrina as unjustified because “accidents happen.” David Brooks argued that technological systems had grown too complex to manage in a column last week. In a later NPR discussion with E.J. Dionne, he rejected the idea that more effective regulation might have made a difference in heading off the Deepwater Horizon disaster:

As for the regulation, if you go down the list of decisions that were made that led to this disaster, the interpreting of the tests, whether to recycle the cement, how to recycle the mud, how to set the cement, none of these things is clear to me would be solved by different regulations. There are certain decisions that have to be made on the spot on a case by case basis and they were made, in this case, by people under extreme duress and in extreme ignorance. I’m not sure a regulator 3,000 miles away could really have done a better job.

It’s interesting how Brooks can take a good point (the problems of growing techno-complexity) and, in a sentence, turn it into a dumb, knee-jerk point. (more…)

Steel sheet pile pulled from the 17th Street Canal floodwall breach, New Orleans

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has put a renewed media and political focus on the significant government failures of Hurricane Katrina, including the collapsed, flawed floodwalls and levees that put most of New Orleans underwater. There’s also an HBO drama now featuring John Goodman’s impassioned, expletive-laden speeches on that man-made disaster. The New York Times Public Editor recently devoted part of a column to discussing the subject.

But a selective amnesia still dominates for some reason. Take a look at this blogosphere exchange between NRO’s Yuval Levin and MoJo’s Kevin Drum:

Levin says, essentially, Katrina was an act of God for which no government could have been prepared, and, under the circumstances, things weren’t so bad: (more…)

Why is John McCain running such a fumbling, cautious, and message-free campaign when the message is right at his fingertips?

If I were McCain, upon sealing up the nomination I would have aggressively focused my campaign around domestic issues, building on my brand as a government reformer. Even if you don’t care much about the details of, say, tax or fiscal policy, reform in the broadest sense clearly has a potent political appeal this year. From national security to environmental protection, the government has been badly misused by the Bush administration. Thanks to Iraq and Katrina, to many it appears all but broken. Moreover, even if you could erase the disasters of the past eight years, the government simply isn’t set up to handle many of the problems engulfing us now. So reforms are not just politically appealing, but necessary.

McCain has credibility in this area – he fought for campaign finance reform against his party and won. He recognizes the pernicious effect Washington’s “permanent class” of lobbyists and trade organizations have on legislation and the executive branch. He really cares about these things too, for instance repeatedly making a point of stressing his personal horror at the big government breakdown in New Orleans. So all of this fits together very naturally for him. Even his strong advocacy for the surge in Iraq, seen in this context, was a reformer’s move in the face of massive blundering. It was an tactical innovation that got things working right – and showed they could work (work militarily, that is, as opposed to working politically or strategically – but that’s another argument).

Last month Yuval Levin made this argument in the Weekly Standard:

McCain himself long ago offered the core of the answer. In announcing his first run for the presidency, in September 1999, McCain declared that if elected he would work to “reform our public institutions to meet the demands of a new day.” So far he has not made the vocabulary of reform a key to his second run for the White House. But a comprehensive reform agenda, which framed America’s challenge in terms of revitalizing and reimagining its core public institutions, would be a natural fit for McCain, and for the challenges of the day. It would provide him with the overarching theme for the assorted elements of his approach to public policy.

I’m not thrilled with Levin’s proposals, which dress up old conservative privatization schemes as a fresh antidote to problems they will never solve, and likely make worse, primarily because so much of what happens in Washington is determined by corporate lobbyists. But the point is, if you’re John McCain it shouldn’t be hard to come up with a simple, compelling message that is a credible alternative to Obama’s.

Yet it’s not happening. Instead, McCain seems to be betting the farm on his politically inadvisable “stay in Iraq” policy, while in the domestic arena he has become an ever-more conventional Republican in a year when Republicanism is clearly on the outs. And he’s constantly haranguing the media and Democrats for accurately reporting his own, inconvenient statements. Today, for example, he’s pushing back against the idea he supports “privatization” of Social Security. Set aside the mind-numbing semantic debate. Why does McCain put himself in this position of supporting an idea that George W. Bush pushed so aggressively, and which was an utter political flop, and which was never a serious policy solution to begin with? Because he’s bought the standard suite of Republican policy positions, most of which have already been tested in the political-electoral marketplace and failed. This may be the easiest way to get a position paper up on your website, but it actually makes the case against McCain: he doesn’t know what the hell he’s going to do if he wins.

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