This week, the anti-disaster assistance party scrambled to shuffle its anti-government convention speakers in the face of Hurricane Isaac. Meanwhile, the New York Times reported , “As the American Petroleum Institute planned a concert and a party here to push its agenda, which includes expansion of oil exploration on federal lands, some of its members were ramping down production in the gulf and removing workers from platforms.”
Welcome to Republicans’ “split-screen ” convention week. On one side of your TV screen, competitive condemnations of the government boot on the American economy’s neck. On the other: a dangerous storm that dramatically symbolizes the need for strong infrastructure, sane environmental policy and solid emergency response. Unlike the Republicans, the storm won’t talk. But the contrast speaks volumes.
This is the second straight GOP convention to lose its opening night to a natural disaster: the 2008 gathering in Minneapolis–St. Paul came as Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast. And it’s the second such gathering since Hurricane Katrina, when Republican hostility to effective governance came at a terrible price—one we’re still paying. That tragedy was a wake-up call for Americans, and it should have been a turning point for the Republican Party. But it wasn’t. Instead, we get cheap symbolism: President Bush’s convenient cancellation of his 2008 convention trip, Monday’s moment of silence. Meanwhile, the anti-government rage burns hot as ever, and the anti-government agenda marches ever onward.
As George Zornick observed  Monday, the current GOP House has “consistently played dangerous politics with disaster relief funds and slashed the budgets of storm monitoring agencies, thereby executing the same small-government-at-all-costs mentality that led to widespread destruction in New Orleans.”
The storm wasn’t the only reality to intrude on the GOP’s Ayn Rand fantasy in 2008. A month before the convention, two vehicles were hit by a 1,200-pound piece of concrete that fell off of a bridge in St. Paul; a year before, thirteen people had died when a Minneapolis bridge collapsed. While the tragedy drew attention from some congressional Democrats, Politico reported  in the lead-up to the ’08 convention that Republicans were literally steering clear of the bridge’s reconstruction in planning their event. The following year, the American Society of Civil Engineers issued its quadrennial report card  on America’s Infrastructure. Overall Grade: D.
Particularly shameful in all this is the role of the Chamber of Commerce: vocal and generous in its support for the GOP’s low-tax, no-regulation agenda, timid and perfunctory in its defense of infrastructure spending. Maybe that’s one reason local affiliates are defecting .
Tuesday night’s announced theme  is “We Built It.” This “We” is purely plural, not collective. It’s not an acknowledgement of the Internet, or the moon landing or the other feats Americans, through government, have come together to achieve. Instead, it’s a lament of aggrieved entrepreneurs supposedly outraged that President Obama denies them sole responsibility for their business success.
Yes, as the storm winds on, the GOP is still flogging Obama’s wholly accurate observation  that business owners don’t pave their own roads or teach themselves to read: “If you were successful somebody along the line gave you some help…Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that.”
Obama was right that, and he’s certainly within his rights to say that Republicans are distorting his remarks. But this moment demands more. Where’s the full-throated defense of the role of government in securing prosperity? Where’s the head-on rebuttal of the anti-government crowd—not just as opportunistic hypocrites , but as abdicators of national purpose?
As Jeff Madrick noted in our special issue  on the role of government, “Conservatives have successfully demonized it as ‘they the bureaucrats’ rather than ‘we the people.’” Rather than an aggressive alternative, “Obama’s leadership style reflects…ambivalence about government.” That won’t cut it.
If Obama’s much-maligned “build that” speech owes a debt to Elizabeth Warren, then we owe her a debt as well. We need a Democratic nominee, and a chief executive, who speaks words like Warren’s much more often. As she plainly explained in a moment that went viral , “You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.” She could have mentioned disaster relief as well.