There are lots of legitimate questions that Democrats could raise to challenge John McCain about which candidate is more committed to helping impoverished Americans. Should tax relief be weighted more to the wealthy or the poor? How much should the federal government be involved in funding health care? Should there be increased spending in social programs like early childhood education? Should the federal minimum wage be increased?
But yesterday Hillary Clinton chose another route altogether. At an event in Ashville, N.C., she said the following:
Senator McCain said he might want to tear down the Ninth Ward instead of rebuilding it, but I went to the Ninth Ward after Katrina and met with people there and saw the destruction and I saw the resilience in their eyes, and they deserve our help to rebuild and regain their lives and their homes.
She was not alone in launching this line of attack. The liberal group ACORN held a conference call Thursday to announce its outrage over McCain’s alleged willingness to flatten the remains of flooded-out New Orleans. These charges came on the same day that McCain visited the Lower Ninth Ward, and they are almost entirely spurious.
To understand why, we have to go back to Monday, when several reporters boarded McCain’s bus in rural Alabama for a drive from a ferry dock to an ice cream store. One of the reporters on the bus produced a pool report for the rest of the traveling press about what McCain had discussed. The pool report, which was emailed to others in the traveling press, included this isolated quote from McCain about his upcoming visit to the Lower Ninth Ward. “That is why we need to go back is to have a conversation about what to do–rebuild it, tear it down–you know, whatever it is.”
Three days later, a writer for CBS News who was not traveling with the campaign, used this quote in a blog post. This was interpreted by Clinton and ACORN as a smoking gun–proof that McCain would not fund efforts to help the people of New Orleans recover.
Now I was not on the bus when McCain said that quote, but I was traveling with McCain during this time. And all available evidence suggests that McCain meant something far narrower–not that he wanted to tear down the Ninth Ward, but that he wanted to speak with the people of the Ninth Ward about how they want to move forward. Why do I say this?
On Thursday, McCain went to the Lower Ninth Ward, and among other things met with volunteers for ACORN to praise their rebuilding efforts. Afterwards, he held a press conference at which he promised a number of federal actions to allow for rebuilding. First, he endorsed the federal plan to rebuild the levees by 2011 to protect against a so-called 100-year hurricane. He asked for the quick completion of other studies to protect against a Category 5 hurricane. “To protect the lives of American citizens we can always find money,” he said. He called for more federal efforts bring affordable housing to the area, as well as money for hospitals, schools and public safety. “We may have to look at where some of our health care dollars are going to help restore health care services to this community and this state,” he said.
He was vague the funding levels he would endorse for these efforts, but clearly stated that helping the people of the Lower Ninth was a priority for him. When one resident asked if he would be willing to revise the federal emergency assistance law, he said, “I will reform any legislation that is an impediment to getting people the help necessary in order to restore their lives.”
These are not the words of a man who “might want to tear down the Ninth Ward instead of rebuilding it,” as Clinton put it. Whether any of the candidates running for president will follow through on their promises remains an open question. But it is inaccurate to claim that McCain has proposed abandoning the still-suffering neighborhoods of New Orleans.