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Dems Should Reframe Response to Katrina

by Pete Ross

The American Prospect online edition is running an insightful article, "Framing Katrina" by George Lakoff and John Halpin. Subtitled "Hurricane Katrina revealed the failure of conservative philosophy; liberals need to stand up for their approach to governing," the article compares the conservative and liberal 'frames' around Katrina-related issues and concludes that Dems are drifting out of focus, while the GOP spin is being being sharpened.

The bungled Katrina relief effort laid bare the Administration's racism and indifference toward poor people, as well as cronyism and incompetence. But Halpin and Lakoff make a persuasive argument that Dems have thus far failed to give due emphasis to their most powerful critique:

...the biggest threat to America’s future and security is the complete dominance of government by a conservative ideology incapable of understanding and addressing our greatest needs.

Instead, the authors say Dems have fashioned a "buckshot" response that will soon scatter to the winds and be forgotten, while the Republicans are busy narrowing their sights for lazer-like precision. While it may seem unlikely that the GOP can turn such a blatant mega-failure to its advantage, Lakoff and Halpin point out that the GOP echo chamber is quite effective at twisting liabilities into assets.

The authors place a lot of value in bashing conservatism as 'unamerican,' but this particular meme may not do much to win hearts and minds of political moderates for Dems in '06. Too many potential Democratic voters consider themselves 'conservative' in some respects, but are nonetheless open to progressive policies. The Republicans refusal to fund the $3 billion that would have shored up the Ponchartrain levees to withstand a category 5 hurricane will cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars by the time all the bills are paid. No doubt many self-identified conservatives would say that's less a failure of conservative philosophy, than a supreme example of stupid economics and warped priorities.

Lakoff and Halpin do better in outlining a more positive Democratic response:

What should progressives say?

The tragedy of Katrina was a matter of values and principles. The heart of progressive values is straightforward and clear: empathy (caring about and for people), responsibility (acting responsibly on that empathy), and fairness (providing opportunities for all and a level playing field from which to start). These values translate into a simple proposition: The common wealth of all Americans should be used for the common good and betterment of all Americans. In short, promoting the common good so that we can all benefit -- and focusing on the public interest rather than narrow individual gain -- is the central role of government. These are not just progressive values. They are America’s values.

A compelling message, and fleshed out a little more and tweaked for individual campaigns, it can resonate with voters ---- not only liberals, but across the political spectrum.