President George W. Bush's bold plan to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast erased by Hurricane Katrina has confirmed what many conservatives feared. Bush isn't a conservative.
Well, he is and he isn't. He isn't a fiscal conservative, if you focus only on his proposed $200 billion reconstruction plan. Stupefied observers and GOP critics have said he's acting like a drunken Democrat, inventing New Deals out of bad credit, and cribbing speeches from that other Texas president, LBJ.
One day he's oblivious to the catastrophe that obliterated parts of three states and the city of New Orleans. Next thing you know, he's a Bourbon Street reveler waving a stolen Amex card and promising to build a new coast and a shining new city - not on a hill, but back in the same sinking swamp it occupied before.
It will be hard, yes, but "we will do what it takes," he told a stunned and reeling nation during his speech from New Orleans last week. We may go bankrupt in the process, but as the South's most famous debutante infamously pouted: "I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow."
Looking more closely at what Bush has proposed, however - and ignoring for a moment the enormous front-end cost - another scene emerges. Seeing the world as Bush does is like looking at one of those computer-generated pictures that you stare at for a long time, trying to let your eyes unfocus on what's close and obvious in order to see the other, often marvelous, image buried within.
You think you're looking at a billion zigzag dots, but then realize you're really seeing a fairy princess fluttering among butterfly gardens and hobbit houses.
It's like that with Bush.
You think you're looking at billions of dollars being tossed out like Mardi Gras beads to a sea of looters and scammers (and those are just the politicians), but then you unfocus your eyes and see what Bush sees: a beautiful landscape of antebellum Habitat for Humanity-built porches filled with happy voucher-educated African-American children giggling on joggling boards in two-parent homes headed by an entrepreneurial father and a stay-at-home mother.
All made possible thanks to Bush's generous reconstruction program wherein - and this is the part that emerges if you stare long enough - he taught the people how to fish.
No, I'm not talking about the hilarious computer-generated photo of Bush and his father fishing in the waist-high waters of New Orleans that made the rounds by e-mail last week. I'm referring to the truest conservative governing principle - that you don't only give a man a fish, which feeds him just today and fosters dependency. You give him a fishing pole and teach him to fish so that he can feed himself for a lifetime
Bush's Big Deal, from his Urban Homesteading Act to his Gulf Opportunity Zone, is essentially a conservative fishing junket for the disenfranchised - a bundle of incentives and government "lifts" geared toward helping the displaced build or rebuild homes and businesses, all in the spirit of individual entrepreneurship and ownership rather than government dependency. And not incidentally, much of it dispersed through faith-based organizations and "armies of compassion."
It's a biblical response to a biblical event that both fits George W. Bush's vision of the world and gives him a chance to test-drive his policies in an almost pristine environment. Except for the money-grubbing politicians and other disaster profiteers, Katrina washed clean the slate upon which Bush could attempt to etch a domestic legacy that is, in principle, conservative.
Moreover, if you're the sort who believes that God works in mysterious ways, that life is a mosaic of divinely inspired pieces, that cataclysmic events are ordained for a higher purpose, then you might just believe that your moment on Earth's timeline isn't accidental and that Big Ideas are waiting to be revealed by those willing to see past the details. George W. Bush, it seems, is one of these.
Notwithstanding the price tag, Bush's plan is a brilliant point of light - if it works. And that's an Iraq-sized IF. I note without sarcasm that creating democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq were also brilliant big ideas. Spreading light and freedom in a dark world of tyranny is a big and beautiful (classically liberal) notion - if only so many people didn't have to die in the process; and if only the eventual beneficiaries of those ideas were equally passionate and dedicated to the mission.
In an uncynical world where money is no obstacle - the world in which Bush grew up - the president is, indeed, a visionary with big ideas. In the real world, where a relaxed focus is more likely to reveal a devastated landscape than a fairy prince's fantasy, he's going to need more than the luck of the well-born. He's going to need a miracle. We can trust he is praying for one.