We built this! Isaac, the RNC, and its horribly timed message


If you had a dollar for every time chants of "We built this!" or tapes of President Obama uttering "You didn't build that" blared from the Republican National Convention in Tampa on Tuesday night, you'd have a big enough bank balance to consider opening an offshore account in the Caymans.

That was the theme inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum -- it was officially "We Built This!" Night, and so every speaker labored to somehow work in their blatant, intentional misreading of President Obama's clumsily attempted riff on how small businesses thrive with new roads and good schools. Whatever the president did or didn't mean, there was no mistaking the Republican message: They believe America only functions when a government -- one that's as small and lightly funded as possible -- gets the hell out of the way.

The "We Built This!" chant was still reverberating at 6;45 p.m., the moment that Hurricane Isaac was slamming into the Louisiana coastline. Outside the Tampa hockey rink, in the reality-based world, millions of Americans were praying that not so much that "we built this" but that we -- we the people, in the guise of our elected government spending our tax dollars -- had built this right.

Specifically, "this" would be the $14.5 billion federal investment, largely through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in rebuilding and improving the levees and flood control in and around New Orleans after the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina.

Make no mistake, the relationship between the federal government, New Orleans and the levees is a complicated one. As outlined by Dan Barry in his great book Rising Tide, a deadly Mississippi River flood that swamped Louisiana in 1927 was so catastrophic that it ushered in a new era of federal involvement, creating new roles for flood management and disaster relief that foretold the coming New Deal.

The problem -- as not just conservatives but progressive folks like my friend Harry Shearer, a New Orleans resident -- is that the federal government did a horrible job in New Orleans keeping its promise of flood protection, as shown when key levees failed after Hurricane Katrina, a monumental failure of proper management. (Shearer makes the persuasive case that the carnage after Katrina was not the fault of Mother Nature but a "federal flood" that he blames on the Army Corps.

Despite its mistakes, the world -- the world that's not in Tampa right now, anyway -- looked to the federal government to ensure there's not another Katrina-like flood. Seven years to the day, most of those taxpayer-funded improvements -- including the longest storm-surge barrier in the United States (pictured at top) and the world's largest water pumping station -- are in place or mostly completed.

Isaac turned out to be a deceptively dangerous storm -- not as powerful as Katrina, but remarkably persistent, hovering over the Crescent City and environs for an entire day, bringing a large storm surge and epic amounts of rain. But, as I write this, the federal protection system -- we built this! -- has held.

Meanwhile, viewers have been troubled by scenes of flooding and despair in nearby Plaquemines Parish, where there is no federal levee but a smaller, locally maintained one -- that was topped by the relentless storm.

The worst is not over, and final chapter on Isaac has yet to be written. But as you listen to speaker after speaker worship at the let-them-eat-cake altar of Ayn Rand over the next two nights in Tampa, ask yourself: What was the free-market solution to the problems of New Orleans, a city that is a national treasure?

We did build that in New Orleans, all of us. If they had any self-awareness, the Republicans should be horrified at the timing of their message. And if we make it through one more day, the rest of us should be damn proud.