Who would have thought that a late-season hurricane would sweep up the East Coast of the United States on the eve of one of the closest election contests in the country’s history?
Not, presumably, Mitt Romney.
Let’s stipulate that the Republican nominee for president, like the Democratic president he seeks to defeat, hopes and prays that Hurricane Sandy and the storm fronts with which it is likely to combine will not cause the devastation that some predict. Let’s also stipulate that both men will support and encourage an aggressive response to any crisis that results from a Halloween-season weather nightmare that has, indeed, been described as a “Frankenstorm.”
But, while we’re acknowledging things, let’s also note the storm is hitting one week before a national election that—even as it is complicated by a natural disaster—will name the leader of the republic for the next four years and select a Congress that will define the direction of the federal government.
Let’s also acknowledge that one candidate and his party have proposed balancing the federal budget by making dramatic cuts even to essential programs.
How about the Federal Emergency Management Agency?
Romney says he “absolutely” wants to decrease the role of FEMA in particular, and the federal government in general, when it comes to dealing with natural disasters. Specifically, he wants to shift more responsibility for responding to storms to the states—despite the fact that, as Hurricane Sandy well illustrates, storms do not respect political jurisdictions. And he appears to be enthusiastic about the idea of substantial privatization of relief initiatives.
Romney is not proposing a radical downsizing of federal disaster preparation and responses in order to improve care and service for those hit by disaster. He proposes pulling the federal government back in order to cut costs, saying: “we cannot afford to do those things.”
Indeed, he has suggested, substantial federal spending to address emergencies is “immoral,” as in: “It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids…”
Following the brutal tornado hit to Joplin, Missouri, in 2011, CNN’s John King asked Romney—during a Republican debate—to discuss disaster relief.
Here’s how it went:
KING: Governor Romney? You’ve been a chief executive of a state. I was just in Joplin, Missouri. I’ve been in Mississippi and Louisiana and Tennessee and other communities dealing with whether it’s the tornadoes, the flooding, and worse. FEMA is about to run out of money, and there are some people who say do it on a case-by-case basis and some people who say, you know, maybe we’re learning a lesson here that the states should take on more of this role. How do you deal with something like that?
ROMNEY: Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.
Instead of thinking in the federal budget, what we should cut—we should ask ourselves the opposite question. What should we keep? We should take all of what we’re doing at the federal level and say, what are the things we’re doing that we don’t have to do? And those things we’ve got to stop doing, because we’re borrowing $1.6 trillion more this year than we’re taking in. We cannot…
KING: Including disaster relief, though?
ROMNEY: We cannot—we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.
“It makes no sense at all”?
Actually, it might make sense to a lot of folks by the end of this week.
The 2012 election campaign has, in so many ways, been a referendum on the role of government.
Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have taken a stand on one side of that referendum. They want to downsize the federal government, reducing its role even when it comes to responding to natural disasters. President Obama and Vice President Biden have been less inclined toward sweeping cuts and the radical restructuring of the role of the federal government when it comes to disaster relief.
Reasonable people might agree with Romney and Ryan, or with Obama and Biden. From the first days of the republic, there have been Americans who have taken the stand that the Republican ticket now espouses. But there have been many more Americans who have held to the view that the constitutional charge to “promote the general welfare” should probably begin with an assurance that a strong federal government can respond to natural disasters that sweep across state lines.
America is always in the process of updating the definition of how we “promote the general welfare” of the republic and its people—and of how we “insure domestic tranquility”—and no one election is going to settle the issue.
But this week should bring some clarity to the debate. The first priority is always to deal with the immediate crisis. But how we respond to this disaster, and future disasters, is always up for interpretation. And the choice between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will send a strong signal with regard to how and when America promotes the general welfare and insures domestic tranquility.
© 2012 The Nation