By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
President Bush came under withering criticism for his handling of Hurricane Katrina yesterday, with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) charging that the storm exposed the administration's incompetence and ideological blinders and former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) asserting that even in its response, the administration backs policies that support the privileged over the working poor.
Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, said in a speech at Brown University that Michael D. Brown, who quit under fire as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's director, exemplified the administration's failures over the past five years.
Using the nickname Bush used for Brown, Kerry said, "Brownie is to Katrina what Paul Bremer is to peace in Iraq, what George Tenet is to slam-dunk intelligence, what Paul Wolfowitz is to parades paved with flowers in Baghdad, what Dick Cheney is to visionary energy policy, what Donald Rumsfeld is to basic war planning, what Tom DeLay is to ethics and what George Bush is to 'Mission Accomplished' and 'Wanted Dead or Alive.' "
Bremer was the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. Wolfowitz served as deputy defense secretary until becoming president of the World Bank.
Edwards, who has made poverty a signature issue, said the plight of many of those displaced by the flooding in New Orleans underscores an urgent need for the nation to attack the problem again. He offered policy initiatives aimed at ensuring that Americans who work full time do not fall below the poverty line.
The former senator -- who was tapped by Kerry to be his running mate last year and, like Kerry, is contemplating a 2008 presidential run -- said the administration has long favored wealth over work. He criticized Bush for suspending a law requiring federal contractors along the Gulf Coast to pay prevailing wages on reconstruction projects.
"I might have missed something, but I don't think the president ever talked about putting a cap on the salaries of the CEOs of Halliburton and the other companies . . . who are getting all these contracts," he said in a speech at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "This president, who never met an earmark he wouldn't approve or a millionaire's tax cut he wouldn't promote, decided to slash wages for the least of us and the most vulnerable."
The two speeches followed pointed comments along the same lines by former president Bill Clinton, who criticized the administration's response to the storm Sunday. Speaking on ABC's "This Week," Clinton said Bush should roll back tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans to offset the cost of rebuilding, and he asserted that the poverty exposed by the storm-forced exodus was caused in part by the administration's own policies.
"Whether it's race-based or not, if you give your tax cuts to the rich and hope everything works out all right, and poverty goes up, and it disproportionately affects black and brown people, that's a consequence of the action made," he said. "That's what they did in the '80s; that's what they've done in this decade. In the middle, we had a different policy."
Of the speeches delivered yesterday by the Democrats' 2004 ticket, Kerry's was harsher by far, and it drew a sharp rebuttal from the Republican National Committee's Tracey Schmitt. "Armchair-quarterbacking on tough issues has never been a problem for Senator Kerry," she said. "Such tactics haven't served him well in the past, and today is no exception."
According to a text of Kerry's speech made available in Washington, he said Katrina had provided an "accountability moment" for the administration.
"This is about the broader pattern of incompetence and negligence that Katrina exposed and beyond that a truly systemic effort to distort and disable the people's government and devote it to the interests of the privileged and the powerful," he said.
Kerry also charged that the administration is pursuing politics as usual in its prescription for rebuilding. "The plan they're designing for the Gulf Coast turns the region into a vast laboratory for right-wing ideological experiments," he said, citing private-school vouchers, subsidies to business and other proposals.
Edwards called for a restoration of community. "The administration may think every American is an island," he said. "But Americans know that Katrina's victims shouldn't have been out there on their own and that no American should be out there on their own."
Edwards used the metaphor of the flooded levees in New Orleans to describe what he called society's inadequate efforts to bolster the poor. Although he called for many new programs to help, he also said everyone, from parents and clergy to those most in need, must accept the responsibility to speak hard truths about behavior -- particularly out-of-wedlock pregnancies -- that condemn many to perpetual poverty.