The good news and bad news of the Bush reconstruction plan

After the president’s speech on Gulf Coast reconstruction, I wrote that Bush is a “uniter once again.” In general, I stand by that assessment. The speech, I think, struck the right note in rebutting MSM and Democratic claims that Bush is indifferent to the plight of the storm’s victims and of poor people generally. Bush came across as engaged and compassionate — a healer. I believe that most people who heard the speech liked what they heard.
At the same time, the president’s remarks have divided conservatives like no other speech he has given, and no other policy he has announced. How valid are the criticisms coming from the right?
There are two broad questions here: first, is Bush correct that the federal government should play the leading role in the reconstruction; second, is the specific role Bush has outlined the correct one. As to the first question, I don’t see much room for doubt that the feds should play the leading role. Some fiscal conservatives and libertarians point out that San Francisco and Chicago rebuilt themselves without federal involvement after their great disasters, and that New York City and State took the lead after 9/11. But reliance on the reconstruction of pre-modern cities a century ago, or on the rebuilding of a few blocks of New York, is so obviously misplaced in this context as to be unserious. And, because it is not reasonable to expect that the burden of a disaster of this magnitude be borne by the people of a given state or city, conservatives who argue otherwise strike me as heartless, as well. Conservatives play into liberal hands when they fail to recognize that we are a nation, not a loose confederation, and that we cannot turn our backs on our fellow citizens, or make them pay the lion’s share of the bill, when they are on the receiving end of a disaster of this magnitude.
Moreover, quite apart from the merits, the federal government is required by law to pay for a huge share of the costs of disaster relief. As I understand it, the Stafford Act of 1988 requires that the feds pay at least three-quarters of the cost of reconstruction of public infrastructure after a major disaster is declared, and even more in the case of an extraordinary disaster. So the answer to the first question is, I think, that the feds should and must play the leading role.
However, I don

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