For a lame duck president in the home stretch of a disastrous second term, there are few opportunities for redemption, especially for President George W. Bush. Political strategists are sharpening their knives and working feverishly to devise new ways to use the president’s horrid popularity ratings to their clients’ best effect and to ensure that not only the White House, but that an even greater majority of Congress falls to the Democrats next November.
Yes, opportunities are few, but they do come along once in a while, and for this president, that opportunity may have come in the guise of a tragic bridge collapse in Minneapolis. This is a rare political opportunity, one the White House shouldn’t let pass.
Memories of the political and disaster management debacle that followed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina may serve to dampen any glimmer of optimism here, but there is hope, and while Iraq will be the overarching policy endeavor by which history will grade the Bush presidency, Minneapolis offers the president a chance to rehabilitate his image now.
When the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed on August 1, America’s immediate thoughts were for family, friends, and associates in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area – along with a collective sigh of relief that terrorism was not involved. And while realities on the scene dominated, including rescue and the ongoing recovery and cleanup efforts, it was not long before communities across the country looked to their own aging infrastructure. Reports were dusted off telling of a shocking number of important spans and other structures in need of repair or replacement.
Ummm… Congressman Young, we don’t need a new tax to pay for this necessary undertaking. And you’re probably not the best guy to be launching the trial balloon anyway.
Members of Congress have proven very adept at making up reasons to funnel tax dollars back to their individual districts. Without pork-barrel projects, there’d be no photo-op ribbon cutting events to attend, and no newsletter fodder touting the creation of jobs for the local constituency. Young, of course, is regularly lampooned as the architect of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of such projects – just within his own home state, known and derided nationally as bridges to nowhere.
My challenge to the president is this: Seize the opportunity presented by the bridge collapse and turn it into something positive for America, something that moves Congress away from “earmarks” and pork and back to smart-spending. Instead of adding a new tax on an already overburdened working class whose budgets are straining under the weight of $3 per gallon fuel, gather together leaders from both parties and figure out a way to funnel pork barrel earmarks into a fund to pay for refurbishing our aging infrastructure. And do it in a way that will encourage competitive bidding for smaller contractors, and not become another swill at the public trough for the likes of Bechtel or Halliburton.
The resignation of Republicanl über-strategist Karl Rove earlier this week gives me even more hope that the president might pull off a political victory in his last hours. Rove’s brilliant but blinkered game planning always seemed too focused on a winner-take-all outcome for my taste. It is supposed that Rove’s behind-the-curtain counsel of the president has played a large part in Mr. Bush’s steadfastness on many policy issues, even when those policies were clearly wrong-headed or had already failed. Better to lose alone than to share the podium in victory with a member of the opposing party. Defeat can be spun, after all.
There are plenty of examples of how a bi-partisan infrastructure rebuilding process could work at the federal level. When a tanker truck crashed in Oakland, Calif., in April, resulting in a fire that destroyed a critical section of highway leading to the San Francisco Bay Brdige, construction firm C.C. Meyers proved that a truly competitive bid process can work – and work amazingly well. C.C. Meyers won what was expected to be a months-long, $5+ million dollar project by bidding less than one million dollars, and completing the repairs in just over three weeks. Resident of California, long used to deriding the state’s transportation agency, were somewhat amazed.
That same spirit should be put to work in an effort to ensure the safety of our highways, bridges, tunnels and public transportation networks while at the same time creating new jobs for Americans and building structures we actually need. There’s no need to make up reasons why a new federal office building or highway widening is essential for the citizens of the home district. We have all the reason we need to take action now – while images of twisted steel, crumbled asphalt, and wrecked vehicles are fresh in our memories.
Even the “Leader of the Free World” is first and foremost a public servant, after all. So maybe we can actually succeed in achieving a bi-partisan win for everyone.