In the aftermath of Katrina, there's an opening for a different kind of politics in America. The new politics isn't about values; it isn't about settling scores. It's about performance. It's about putting a wounded, shaken country back on its feet, much as Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in his famous First Hundred Days.
One politician who is clearly articulating that vision right now is the recovering right-wing firebrand, former House speaker Newt Gingrich. I've always had a soft spot for Gingrich, despite his sometimes nasty partisanship during the 1990s, because he is that rare political figure who actually does think "outside the box" about how to solve problems. And he's doing that now.
The immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has looked like politics as usual. The Democrats are in a paroxysm of righteous indignation -- much of it justified but in the long run counterproductive. When Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid proposes that the Senate investigate whether President's Bush's vacation contributed to the disaster, the public response is likely to be: Give me a break! When the Democrats focus all their criticism on the GOP-led federal government and ignore the appalling lapses of Democratic administrations in New Orleans and Louisiana, they lose credibility.
The Bush administration, meanwhile, remains in its hunkered-down defensive crouch, with White House spokesman Scott McClellan treating any demand for accountability as a partisan "blame game." It's outrageous to read that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has been telling members of Congress that media reports are overstating the problems for storm survivors -- this from a man who was denying on National Public Radio last Thursday that there was any crisis at the New Orleans convention center at the very hour reporters were finding dead bodies and abandoned, starving people there. If the administration maintains that tone, it will self-destruct.
Now listen to what Gingrich has to say about "changing the playbook" after Katrina. His comments are drawn from two memos he has circulated to Republican leaders since the storm hit and from a conversation we had this week exploring some of his ideas.
Gingrich argues that the values debate that has divided America so sharply during the past decade is over. There's a broad consensus about most issues, and anyway people realize that the country's big problems aren't about morality but performance. "We're not in a values fight now but over whether the system is working," Gingrich told me. "The issue is delivery." And that's true at every level -- city, state and federal.
Gingrich's critique of the federal response is as devastating as that of any Democrat. "For the last week the federal government and its state and local counterparts have consistently been behind the curve," he wrote fellow Republicans this week. "The American people overwhelmingly know that the current situation is totally unacceptable," and for that reason, "it is a mistake to get trapped into defending the systems and processes which clearly failed." He observes in another memo, "While the destruction was unprecedented, it was entirely predictable."
What's needed is a creative government response as big as the disaster itself. Gingrich urges in one of his memos that Bush appoint a super-manager who can oversee the rebuilding and suggests Rudy Giuliani for the job. "The former mayor has enough management toughness to force the federal agencies to actually change their behavior," he writes.
The former speaker has some classic Gingrich zingers for how to rev up the rebuilding effort. He wants to turn the Gulf Coast into a "Zone of Recovery, Reconstruction and Prosperity," by offering a 25 percent tax credit for all job-creating investment in the region over the next three years. And he wants to create a cadre of "entrepreneurial public managers" who can replace the leaden public bureaucracy and get things done on Internet time, with the reliability of FedEx or UPS.
This is the moment for the Party of Performance to take center stage. The breakdown in public life was obvious before Katrina. We have a government that can't control its borders, can't find a viable strategy for its war in Iraq, can't organize the key agencies to address the terrorism problems it has been trumpeting. The yearning in the country for something different has been palpable this year.
America faces an "extreme disaster," says Gingrich, one that will have more lasting and complex effects than any domestic event since World War II. The politicians who rise to that challenge will surge in the 2006 and 2008 elections. The ones who remain stuck in their ruts will suffer. Who's ready to sign up for the Party of Performance?