In 1975, when New York City teetered on the brink of financial default, the refusal of then-President Gerald Ford to back an aid package inspired the famous New York Daily News headline: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”
There was a measure of hyperbole in that headline, and it was at least a little unfair to Ford.
But in light of House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s suggestion that rebuilding hurricane-ravaged New Orleans “doesn’t make sense to me,” it would not be a stretch to headline a report: “Hastert to City: Drop Dead.”
Before the bodies had been pulled from the flood waters that have filled the streets of the Crescent City — at least in part because of the failure of a Hastert-led Congress to allocate the funding needed to modernize the city’s levees — the Illinois Republican was displaying his brand of compassionate conservatism by saying of New Orleans: “It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed.”
Most significantly, Hastert said that Congress ought to ask “some real tough questions” about whether to allocate federal funding for the job of restoring one of America’s most beloved cities. The House Speaker’s suggestion that “it makes no sense” for Congress to rebuild a city that is seven feet below sea level might sound like a warped version of conservative “tough love” if the man who is is second in the line of succession to the presidency after Vice President Dick Cheney had been similarly dismissive of plans to rebuild coastal areas of Mississippi and Alabama.
Unlike New Orleans, a 300-year-old city with a rich history but not a particularly rich populace, some of the hardest-hit areas of Mississippi and Alabama were upscale waterfront communities that have been built up in recent years, as real-estate developers have claimed more and more coastal wetlands for their oceanview projects.
But those Republican-leaning areas, which are home to people like former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, were spared Hastert’s talk of “tough questions.”
Could the calculus really be this dark? Could the Speaker of the House really justify dismissing one community while caring for another for purely parisan purposes? Anyone who has watched this Speaker in action knows the answer to that question.
Hastert is about as crass a political player as you will find in Washington. Along with his political godfather, House Minority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the Speaker has made the House more partisan, and crude, than at any time in its history.
Hastert and DeLay keep vulture eyes on the political map. To the them, New Orleans is little more than a Democratic town full of African Americans, Latino immigrants, gays and lesbians and a few remaining pockets of southern white liberalism. Republican strategists have long been frustrated by New Orleans, a city so blue that it has often tipped the political balance in an otherwise red state. It was New Orleans that gave Democratic U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu her narrow first win in 1996 and her only slightly more comfortable reelection victory in 2002. Votes from New Orleans helped make Louisiana one of the few southern states to back Democrat Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection, and they kept Democrat Al Gore competitive with George W. Bush in 2000. In 2003, overwhelming support from New Orleans gave Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco a come-from-behind win in the state’s 2003 gubernatorial contest.
Notably, both Mississippi and Alabama have Republican governors and senators and have voted solidly Republican in presidential contests for decades. While Bush lost New Orleans by a 3-1 margin in his two presidential runs, he carried the Congressional districts that make up southern Alabama and Mississippi by margins of almost 2-1.
Hastert’s honest initial statement of his views regarding New Orleans was an embarrassment to Republican Congressional leaders, but who didn’t want to be seen as insensitive when they were busy pulling together votes for a face-saving aid package. So Hastert issued a backtracking press release, while his allies circled the wagons and began peddling the line that, “Hey, Denny’s just a gruff old wrestling coach with a tendency to be blunt” — much as they did in 2004 when Hastert announced shortly before the presidential vote that Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network was pulling for the election of Democrat John Kerry.
Don’t believe it. Hastert and DeLay see everything in political terms. And in the political calculus of the House Republican Leadership, New Orleans and cities like it have for a long time been written off as expendable. That’s why New Orleans didn’t get the infrastructure assistance it needed when the city’s aging levies could have been strengthened to withstand a storm even as powerful as Hurricane Katrina. And that’s why, in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, it made no sense to Denny Hastert to give any hope at all to the people of New Orleans.
Don’t doubt for a second that, in his heart of hearts, Hastert believes New Orleans and other big cities are expendable, just as he believes that federal dollars should be poured without limit into the reconstruction of the coast-hugging upscale developments of conservative southern Mississippi and Alabama.
In the months and years to come, as questions arise about whether the federal government is caring equitably for all of Hurricane Katrina’s victims, people of good will should never forget Denny Hastert’s first reaction. If the Speaker is not held to account at every turn, there is every reason to fear that he will return to it — and that New Orleans and its citizens will be victimized once more.