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In New Orleans, It’s Time for a New Approach

Here are some of the Democrats’ greatest rhetorical “hurricane” hits from the past month. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) at a Congressional Black Caucus town hall meeting: “George Bush is our Bull Connor.”

Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) at the Center for American Progress: “If the Great Depression brought forth Hoovervilles, these trailer towns may someday be know as Bushvilles.” [IMGCAP(1)]

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) at Brown University: “If 12-year-old Boy Scouts can be prepared, Americans have a right to expect the same from their 59-year-old president of the United States.”

Cindy Sheehan, who became an anti-war activist after losing her son in Iraq: “George Bush needs to stop talking, admit the mistakes of his all-around failed administration, pull our troops out of occupied [!] New Orleans and Iraq, and excuse his self [sic] from power.”

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean to Fox News: “The Bush administration just went back to turning [FEMA] into a dumping ground for people who evidently didn’t have anything else to do, and it’s really too bad, because now people have paid for that with their lives.”

Then there were the attacks by wise guys from Kanye West to Bette Midler who couldn’t put aside their hatred of Bush even as they made fundraising appeals for storm victims.

Most of this overheated rhetoric is just the latest nasty performance by an increasingly strident and spiteful chorus of Democratic voices, and for the most part, it ought to be ignored.

One comment, however, deserved more attention than it got, not because it was especially harsh or a particularly good sound bite but because it was so enlightening.

As she offered up her party’s “plan” for a post-Katrina recovery, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, “The Gulf Coast region does not deserve to be treated as a laboratory for political opportunism or ideological experimentation.”

It was a neat phrase designed to take political advantage of all the post-Katrina criticism. Without realizing it, however, the Minority Leader illustrated, in one short sentence, what has become a systemic failure of the leadership of the Democratic Party: an almost instinctive rejection of any new ideas not rooted in the policy paradigms of the New Deal or the Great Society.

She was responding to President Bush’s initial proposals to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, which included ideas like a “Gulf Opportunity Zone” to encourage new business investment in the region through special tax breaks; the Urban Homesteading Initiative to help increase home ownership for low-income people; and Worker Recovery Accounts to provide targeted assistance for those needing extra help finding a job.

With tens of thousands of displaced children in need of educational assistance, Bush also proposed additional funding for both public and private schools that take in evacuee children. These ideas are hardly extreme or radical. Given the pre-Katrina economic and educational problems in New Orleans, the rest of Louisiana and much of the Gulf Coast, a fairly strong case can be made that thinking “outside the box” is exactly what this uniquely wonderful but uniquely troubled region needs.

For example, over the decades, billions of federal and state dollars have poured into New Orleans, yet it has one of the lowest average household incomes in the country, and nearly one-third of its people live in poverty. New Orleans’ high school graduation rate is only 65 percent, while its sixth-graders score in the 28th percentile nationally on basic skills tests.

Its neighborhoods are being destroyed by drugs and crime. And even though Louisiana received more Army Corps of Engineers funding than any other state last year, its politicians gambled away New Orleans’ levees for other pet projects. It’s the poor, whose neighborhoods are now toxic flood plains, who lost.

When Nancy Pelosi rejects new ideas out of hand as she did last week for purely partisan reasons, she is condemning New Orleans to more of the same, more of the same failed liberal ideas anchored in the past, from the same failed leaders — predominantly Democrats — who have presided over generations of poverty, crime, second-rate educational opportunities, and the loss of hope that she decries today.

Republicans are making a common sense argument: The New Deal of the 1930s didn’t end poverty in New Orleans nor did the Great Society programs of the ’60s. Why not give conservative ideas a chance to build a better “new” New Orleans that will help end the class and race divisions that have plagued this great city?

For too many Democratic leaders today, it is the fear that those ideas might just work that keeps them from playing the constructive role in this monumental rebuilding effort. There are Democrats willing to put aside partisanship to work cooperatively on what will be one of this nation’s most difficult challenges.

No less a partisan than Donna Brazile responded positively to President Bush’s address to the nation from New Orleans saying, “Mr. President, I am ready for duty. … Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

With potentially hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funds going to this effort, Democratic leaders would be better advised to follow her lead, be important players by working with the president on his ideas, breaking free of old paradigms and offering truly new ideas of their own and helping keep the process honest.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.