At his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Mitt Romney circled back to a much-ridiculed promise Barack Obama had made four years before to slow climate change. “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet,” he scoffed. “My promise is to help you and your family.” If you happened to reside in New York, New Jersey, or other unlucky locales last week, you might have been aware that limiting the increased severity of extreme weather events caused by climate change, or the rise of the oceans, is the very same thing as helping you and your family. And if you don’t happen to reside there, you might feel some kinship with those who are underwater, metaphorically or literally.
There is a tiresome conceit, popular among politicians themselves, that we must set politics aside during a national disaster. But disasters are inherently political, because government is political, and preventing and responding to disasters is a primary role of the state. Talking about the politics of disaster can be tricky, though: At the moment of greatest urgency, emotions run so hot that it’s hard to fairly assess the costs and benefits of disaster response. Yet moments of normality are too cool. It is easy to minimize the costs of preparing for an eventuality that is far off. The happenstance of a disaster arriving on the eve of a polarizing national election happens to clarify some choices that Romney would prefer to obscure.
One of the under-discussed questions in the election has been the Republican proposal to reduce nondefense discretionary spending by as much as two-thirds. Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, have defended this position through vagueness. Whenever Obama explains what would happen if those cuts were allocated in an across-the-board fashion, Republicans complain it’s unfair to assume across-the-board cuts. And when any specific program—education, veterans support—enters the debate, Romney denies they are on his chopping block.
It is true that Republicans have no special animus against disaster response. But during a GOP debate last summer, when CNN’s John King gave Romney an opportunity to separate the Federal Emergency Management Agency from his general animus against Washington, Romney declined to do so. “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,” he said. “And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.” When asked if this general rant against government included disaster relief, he replied, “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.”
Last week, Romney offered up a demonstration of the private sector at work in the business of disaster response. He hastily converted a campaign rally in Ohio into a relief rally, requesting that attendees bring canned goods for flood victims. No big government here—just Romney’s private sector know-how, at no cost to the taxpayer. But campaign staffers, worried that Romney enthusiasts wouldn’t bring enough donations, hurried off to load up at a local Walmart in order to have a sufficiently impressive display of pseudo-compassion for the cameras. It was both a political fiasco for Romney and a perfect synecdoche for his fetishization of private initiative.
If there are no atheists in foxholes, natural disasters strip away the faith of even the most rigid adherents to the free market. Romney emphasizes—now—his abiding belief in the need to maintain FEMA’s budget and federal role, which makes disaster response yet another of the exceptions to his generalized anti-government cant. But Hurricane Sandy dramatizes, in literal form, the argument that Obama has been making all throughout the campaign: that we Americans “are all in this together.” People who live in a flooded neighborhood may, at that moment, have become takers, dependent on government. But there is nothing that they did wrong, just as those spared by the storm committed no act of virtue. Some of us will spend most of a career building skills in a field that shrinks or disappears. Some of us will have a family member stricken by a costly disease. It is easy to share Romney’s sense of self-congratulation about success when the misfortune of others has unfurled slowly and out of sight. It is much harder when that misfortune drops suddenly and visibly from the sky.