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Kerry and Edwards Say Bush’s Actions Have Been a Disaster

Times Staff Writer

Both members of the 2004 Democratic presidential ticket sharply criticized President Bush in dueling speeches Monday that highlighted the partisan conflict over Hurricane Katrina and early maneuvering for the 2008 White House race.

Speaking at Brown University in Rhode Island, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) delivered his most sweeping indictment of Bush’s priorities and performance since last year’s campaign.

The crisis caused by the hurricane, Kerry said, exposed a “pattern of incompetence and negligence” in the Bush administration, as well as “a truly systemic effort to distort and disable the people’s government, and devote it to the interests of the privileged and the powerful.”

At a liberal think tank in Washington, former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) offered more policy proposals in a speech focused on combating poverty. Echoing former President Clinton’s famous campaign formulation about welfare, Kerry’s 2004 running mate urged “a serious, long-term effort to end poverty as we know it.”

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Tracey Schmitt, press secretary for the Republican National Committee, accused the two of attempting to politicize the tragedy along the Gulf Coast.

“Armchair quarterbacking on tough issues was never a problem for the Kerry/Edwards campaign,” she said. “Such overt tactics didn’t serve them well in the 2004 campaign, and today is no exception.”

Monday’s speeches offered a reminder that Kerry and Edwards, rivals during the 2004 Democratic primaries, could find themselves competing for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

“In a sense, these are two guys who have never stopped running; they have never gotten out of campaign mode,” said Democratic consultant Jim Jordan, who served as Kerry’s campaign manager early in the 2004 race.

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Kerry and Edwards each began their speeches with a similar argument, contending that the devastation in New Orleans revealed social and governmental problems that the administration had not sufficiently addressed. But from there, they moved in different directions.

At the Center for American Progress, Edwards portrayed the suffering among those left behind in New Orleans as a metaphor for the struggles of poor families across America.

Edwards, who last year spoke often about disparities between the “two Americas” of affluence and need, on Monday promoted elements of what he called a “Working Society.”

For New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast, he proposed a modern version of the Works Progress Administration that President Franklin D. Roosevelt devised to create jobs during the Great Depression.

Edwards’ agenda also included an increase in the nationwide minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.50 an hour (California’s minimum wage is $6.75), and new government subsidies to help working-poor families purchase a first home or build savings accounts.

Edwards said he would pay for his ideas partly by allowing tax cuts for top income brackets that Bush pushed through Congress to expire.

Far more directly than in 2004, Edwards said that reducing poverty would also require more progress in discouraging teen pregnancy and encouraging young men to take responsibility for the children they father.

Rhetorically linking such problems with the flooding, Edwards declared: “When a 13-year-old girl thinks there’s nothing wrong with having a baby that will drive both her and her child into poverty, we haven’t built the levees high enough.”

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Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, would not comment directly on Edwards’ speech. But he said Bush has focused on “the root causes of poverty” through his economic and education reform agenda.

“No. 1, the best anti-poverty program is a job,” Duffy said. “And second, it is education. We are closing the achievement gap between black, Hispanic and white children.”

Kerry focused his speech on broader themes, critiquing Bush on two fronts.

He charged that the administration’s response to the hurricane showed a lack of competence evident in other areas, such as planning for the reconstruction of Iraq. Accusing Bush of ignoring warnings about the threat of flooding in New Orleans, Kerry declared: “This horrifying disaster has shown Americans at their best -- and their government at its worst.”

Kerry said the recovery agenda for the region that Bush announced last week “turns the region into a vast laboratory for right-wing ideological experiments,” such as waiving requirements that federal contractors pay prevailing wages during the cleanup.

Second, he said the hurricane should show Americans the need to take collective action through the government to attack entrenched problems, such as persistent poverty and lack of access to healthcare.

“It’s time we framed every question -- every issue -- not in terms of what’s in it for ‘me,’ but what’s in it for all of us,” Kerry said.

Schmitt, the RNC press secretary, criticized Kerry for sending excerpts of the speech to supporters in an e-mail that included a box asking recipients to make a contribution to his political action committee

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