"Dems Try to Overcome 'Katrina Brain'"
April 25, 2006
Author: Elaine Kamarck, Former Lecturer in Public Policy
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
The New Orleans hurricane relief efforts are giving a party stunned by losses a chance to revive.
The news coming from New Orleans last weekend was about the mayoral election, but national politics were playing out there, too.
Several hundred members of the Democratic National Committee changed out of their suits and ties and into their Saturday work clothes and headed out to a variety of cleanup and rebuilding sites. We probably helped New Orleans a little bit during those three days but, considering what this entire disaster has meant for the Democratic Party, we should have stayed a year and rehabbed hundreds of houses.
Not only was Katrina the beginning of the end of George W. Bush's presidency (a year ago his approval ratings were in the high forties; today they are in the low thirties). At great cost, it reminded Americans of something extremely important. When the private sector suffers from incompetent and corrupt leaders, innocent people lose money — think Enron. When the public sector is run by incompetents, innocent people lose lives — think Katrina.
My husband and I spent Saturday at Myra Duchane's house in New Orleans where, along with 10 other volunteers, we helped pull up two layers of moldy linoleum from the floor of a small Victorian that once had held six feet of water courtesy of Hurricane Katrina. You could see where the water had reached by where the mold on the fireplace stopped. Duchane, a former clerical worker for the state, now lives in Alexandria, La. She and her brother come back to the city as often as they can and, with the help of whoever they can find, try to rebuild the house they own. The work is slow. The entire house has to be gutted. Not a shred of furniture survived.
We were lucky in our assignment; Duchane's house was nearly down to the floorboards and framing. Other houses in the city haven't even been emptied. (We were warned never to open a refrigerator in a house that's been sitting untouched since last September because of rancid odors and the possibility of disease.) Very few of the other houses on Duchane's street are inhabited. In fact, very little of New Orleans seems inhabited these days. Even the famously loud and raucous French Quarter, a place that received relatively little damage and where the food and music is as terrific as ever, seems to have a hush over it.
We got to Duchane's house courtesy of a group called Democrats in Jeans, the brainchild of Deborah Langhoff, a local party activist who decided to use the Democratic Party's network throughout the state to organize assistance for hurricane victims. And so, when National Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean decided to bring the group's annual spring meeting to New Orleans, he offered Langhoff a little help. But New Orleans helped the Democrats more than they helped it.
Katrina was one of those "teaching moments" unlike any we've seen since 9/11. For decades now, Democrats have suffered under the political albatross of being the party of big government. But sometimes you actually need the government to work. In New Orleans, it failed spectacularly; the Democrats failed at the local level, the Republicans at the national level.
For six years now, the Democrats have been in a more or less perpetual state of befuddlement. In 2000, they lost an election that they won; in 2002, they were blindsided as the Republicans took a Democratic idea (for a Department of Homeland Security) and used it against them, and in 2004, they sat by, stupefied, as the Republicans savaged their war-hero candidate. You could say we Democrats had a collective case of "Katrina brain" — an expression the New Orleanians use to explain the state of mental exhaustion and overload that causes them to forget the simplest things.
But, for the Democrats who weren't forced to live through it, Katrina had a way of cutting through the fog and lifting the bewilderment. It took the party back to the floorboards and the framing. The Democrats weren't the party of big government. They were the party of government when and where you need it — like when you're standing on a roof waiting for a helicopter rescue or when your private pension goes belly up, and you've got to be able to rely on your Social Security check. Katrina got the Democrats back to the floorboards and, with a little luck, they just might succeed in building a new house after all.
Elaine Kamarck is a lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and was a senior advisor to former Vice President Al Gore.
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