Wednesday night at the Brewers game, our sister-in-law got a call on her cell phone. A bridge collapsed in the Twin Cities. The guy in front of us turned around and showed us a picture of the thing on his cell phone. After the initial shock, I turned to the Reddess with three words: "It's Bush's fault."
It has to be because there is no tragedy that we can't politicize. For years and years, experts tell us that New Orleans is built in a singularly poor location and, if the right hurricane hits, it will be devastated. Nevertheless, for all those years, local politicians prefer pork to protection. Finally, the storm hits. The death toll is high, but a fraction of what had been predicted. Notwithstanding astonishing inactivity in the face of danger by the leadership on the scene (Nagin and Blanco), Katrina is Bush's fault.
I have no doubt that politicians may have ignored road maintenance (although anyone who drives in the summer in Wisconsin might be skeptical about that). It doesn't buy votes and deferred maintenance is close to a universal human characteristic.
I am also fairly certain that, whatever the extent of neglect of our national infrastructure, it extends past the Iraq War, the Bush administration, even the GOP takeover of Congress. I seem to recall the Democrats, over the years, calling for spending money on all manner of things and, while I am sure that roads were in there somewhere (what wasn't in there?), I cannot remember Clinton, Gore or Kerry emphasizing the Moral Equivalence of War against our sagging bridges.
And, whether or not it was in there somewhere, I haven't noticed any discernible reduction in our spending for highways. In fact, construction crews were on that bride when it collapsed.
The problem with the I-35 bridge is that inspectors did not detect its imminent collapse. Maybe they erred. Maybe, as seems more likely, the principles of bridge inspection are not infallible and that, sometimes, very unlikely and very bad things happen.
It would, however, be nice if we could at least recover and bury the dead and have a clue about what actually happened before we roll out the partisan guns.
But since we just can't wait, the kneejerk "Republicans won't spend money" argument that we are starting to hear has nothing to do with the problem. Congress has been more than willing to spend money on infrastructure. As this morning's Wall Street Journal notes:
The hair-trigger political impulse, from states and Capitol Hill alike, is that this means the feds need to spend more money. But it's hardly the case that taxpayers have been stingy. In 1991, the five-year highway cost $151 billion. By 1998 it was up to $217 billion, and in 2005 a Republican Congress agreed to spend $286 billion and would have spent far more had President Bush not threatened a veto.
But, of course, both Republicans and Democrats preferred that the money be spent on new projects because that is what gets you in the paper back home. As the Journal notes, earmarks for pork projects were pervasive in the highway bills passed by the Democrat congresses as I am sure they were when the GOP had the majority.
I might point out that this is a corollary of the New Deal philosophy of, as FDR Harry Hopkins reportedly put it, "tax and spend, elect and elect." But that I suspect the sentiment, just like the tendency to avoid things that aren't vote-getters, is as old as democracy.