[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
I lived virtually all of my life in the Northeast, mostly in the New York area, and the majority of my friends live there. Hurricane Sandy is more than just a political football to me. It's about as close to personally affecting me as something can be without me and my family actually living through it. So it is only natural that I am going to pay close attention to how President Obama and Mitt Romney handle the storm.
With the election a week away, it's not playing political games to look at the responses of the two candidates to Sandy and what they tell us about the two men who are asking us to entrust them with the executive power of the nation over the next four years.
I think the best way to make the comparison is by looking at two telling quotes, both by Republicans, one from yesterday and one from June 2011.
Quote 1: "The president has been outstanding in this, and so [have] the folks of FEMA."
Republican New Jersey Governor (and ardent Mitt Romney supporter) Chris Christie said this Tuesday about the response to Hurricane Sandy.
I am not making the argument that President Obama has done anything extraordinary here. He did what a president is supposed to do, what, for most of the 20th century, any president, Democrat or Republican, would have done. He competently responded to the storm, as did the agency tasked to intervene in these situations, which is led by someone qualified to do so. It's pretty basic stuff if you don't have a disdain for government that is so irrational and intense that you neglect to even take seriously the basic services expected from the federal government.
Now, you would think that should be the standard position of anyone running for president. Unfortunately, it is not. Because the modern Republican Party has a hatred for government so intense, and takes the responsibility of government to provide basic services so loosely, it is unable to take care of the basic health and safety of Americans in a time of crisis.
Don't believe me? We don't have to go too far back in history to see what the new GOP thinks of its obligations. In August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, FEMA's feeble response was on display for all to see, and people died and suffered as a result. Why was FEMA so incompetent? Because the president, George W. Bush, thought so little of the agency's role (you know, saving lives in a disaster) that he did not appoint someone to head the organization who had experience with these kinds of situations. Instead, he tapped the director of the Arabian Horse Association (a job he was fired from, apparently). In Bush's view, the government is a bad thing (short of its functions of waging unnecessary wars, apparently), so government jobs exist to reward cronies for their support.
Remember, it was under Bush that Nancy Nord, the acting head of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, testified to Congress that it should not give her department more money to inspect products after a spate of Chinese exports--from dog food to children's toys--were recalled after doing damage. And Nord was the acting head because Democrats refused to confirm Bush's first choice, Michael Baroody, who as a lobbyist for the National Association of Manufacturers pursued
anti-consumer policies and was about to receive a $150,000 payment from
the group before taking his government position.
Reasonable people can differ on the best way to get the economy going. But a president with disdain for the basic protecting functions of government is a threat to the safety of Americans.
Now, you may be asking, how does this pertain to Mitt Romney? Well, that's easy. Let's go to the second quote:
Quote 2: "Absolutely."
The speaker of this one-word quote was Mitt Romney at a Republican presidential primary debate on June 13, 2011. The question? Should FEMA be eliminated. Romney's proposal? Privatize it. That's right, let profit-making corporations be in charge of disaster relief.
Okay, that was over a year ago. What is Romney's position on the FEMA issue now? Silence. He refused to answer questions about the debate statement after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Northeast.
Watch it yourself. Mitt Romney is asking you to vote for him to be the president of the United States, and he believes it's not the federal government's job to provide assistance in times of disaster. This isn't the hysterical ramblings of liberal blogger. It is the words of the man himself.
Romney's politically motivated, photo-op response to Sandy is especially distressing in light of the fact that he is still on the record opposing a federal response to the suffering.
Bush taught us the lesson of putting someone in charge of the executive branch with a disdain for government. It results in damage to the health and safety of Americans, as the government can no longer effectively carry out its basic protecting functions. In light of the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, we can see what a competent, reasonable chief executive means to the lives of those affected (so much so that a Republican governor with eyes on the White House is nevertheless forced to praise the sitting Democratic president).
One last thought: I am sure some of you will be saying, "Well, when Romney said he would shut down FEMA, he was just pretending to be "severely conservative" (his words) to win the nomination." But the facts just don't back up that claim. Romney's lie-fueled (debates 1, 2 and 3) race to the center didn't happen after he sewed up the nomination, nor did it happen at the convention. No, it happened at the first debate, just over a month before the general election, when he was down in the polls and had been left for dead by even some Republicans. Romney's decision to act like a moderate is a desperate campaign maneuver, nothing more.
Actions speak louder than words, and Romney chose Paul Ryan to be his running mate, the author of the far-right House budget that would slash Medicaid and Social Security and essentially destroy Medicare (turning into a voucher program that would leave tens of millions of seniors without insurance), all while giving massive tax cuts to the rich (but raising taxes on the middle class). And Romney didn't just pick Ryan; he endorsed his budget. (I wrote more about the significance of Romney tapping Ryan in this space in August.)
If Romney was just acting severely conservative, he would not have given a huge platform to the poster child for far-right, Tea Party positions.
Sometimes, in the heat of an election, it is easy for voters to forget about the bigger picture. With three debates, endless soundbites, and, if you live in a swing state, a ceaseless barrage of television ads, it is hard for some to remember the context and history of the candidates' claims. It is this hectic environment that allows Romney to, suddenly, turn his back on two years of campaigning (all caught on video) on far-right positions and shake the Etch-a-Sketch and call himself a moderate.
But sometimes, an event happens that shakes the electorate up and forces it to concentrate on who the candidates really are and what they stand for. It happened when the financial crisis hit in September 2008, and it is happening again in 2012 with Hurricane Sandy. The responses of the two candidates are symbolic of where they stand: President Obama's competence forcing a Republican rival to praise him, and Mitt Romney's silence when asked about his declaration that FEMA should be shut down and disaster relief should be privatized.
You just can't put a guy in the White House who hates government so much, he will not even take seriously its basic function to protect the American people. We have seen that scenario before, and it meant pain and suffering for too many of us.