By Chez Pazienza: Well, if you wanted a surprise just before the election, you got one: a late-October hurricane that practically defies explanation and description, a once-in-a-lifetime superstorm named Sandy. The storm is now pummeling the Eastern Seaboard, bringing 90-mile-an-hour winds, blistering sheets of rain and severe flooding to some of the country's largest metropolises and most heavily populated suburban areas. And the worst is yet to come; as of this writing Sandy hasn't even officially made landfall yet and its aftermath is sure to last days and potentially even weeks and months. In the end, this will likely wind up being an epic natural disaster. It's certainly not the time to talk about politics -- and yet in some ways it's exactly the time to talk about politics as well as policy.
First of all, when it comes to the presidential race itself Sandy has done the seemingly impossible: stopped both candidates in their tracks. As of now, there's a pretty good chance that the full-throttle campaigns we've been witnessing for weeks and months are effectively over. (For an exhausted American electorate, this could be the one upside in all of this.) This storm and the devastation it leaves in its wake are going to dominate national news overage and even the political narrative right up until election day. It's a little like what happened back in 2008 with the economic collapse, only with infinitely better pictures, meaning that cable news will turn into your resource for 24/7 Sandy coverage.
Obviously there are two schools of thought on what the storm means for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. One way of looking at it is that a diversion for the Obama administration -- namely having to stop campaigning and play the role of Commander in Chief -- will be good for a challenger who has the benefit of not having anything to do but put himself out there to the public in the quest for the White House. Another, though, the one that's more likely, is that an opportunity for Obama to do what he does well -- namely remain calm and capable in a crisis situation -- will only make him appear more presidential and hand him a positive spotlight and a national stage when Romney can least afford it. Romney may have learned from his past missteps, particularly his disastrous handling of the Libya attack, because he and Paul Ryan have erred on the side of caution and canceled their campaign stops over the next couple of days. He may be painfully gaffe-prone and utterly inept and spazzy when put on the spot, but Romney's at least smart enough to know that he has nothing to gain by trying to upstage the President of the United States at this moment. It may be politically risky to simply cede the floor to Obama, but at least temporarily he's left with little choice unless he feels like once again switching gears and leaving his latest incarnation, that of a sensible and compassionate moderate, in the dust to veer hard to the right. The next 48-hours will very likely be rough for Romney because Obama will be front-and-center in the public eye and, provided he doesn't do anything rash -- which isn't in his nature anyway -- he'll be getting a lot of positive press.
But the other question that's worth considering, again, is one of policy. It's true that almost any terrible event can be exploited in our severely divided and divisive political culture and there's something ghoulish about bringing up politics at a time like this. To not contemplate, however, the difference between the way the Obama administration is handling this disaster and the way a prospective Romney administration would is a kind of dereliction of duty on the part of the political media and a disservice to voters. The reason is that the difference speaks to the fundamental divergence of ideas between the candidates when it comes to how both view the role of government in our society and its benefit to our people.
Just a little over a year ago, in a CNN-sponsored debate among the Republican presidential candidates, Mitt Romney was asked whether he would work to keep FEMA financially solvent. The question was especially relevant given that a tornado had just slammed into Joplin, Missouri, killing 150 people. Romney's answer was revealing and it is absolutely worth revisiting right now:
"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."
Now it just about goes without saying that, given that it's been confronted with this quote quite a bit over the last few hours and has been asked to make clear its views on FEMA, the Romney campaign is now backing away from the most draconian implications of this statement. Romney now says, of course, that while he favors giving more power to the states he has no plan to abolish FEMA if elected. But in addition to once again displaying in grand fashion the chimeric nature of Romney -- he's a guy who will change many of his core views on a dime and pander to anyone he believes can help him achieve his goal of seeing himself in the Oval Office -- it makes clear the fundamental difference between the way he sees government service and the way Obama does.
The reality is two-fold, and it strikes at the heart of the decision come next Tuesday. President Obama recognizes that while government certainly can't solve all the problems of the nation's citizenry, there are some problems that only it can solve. The states have neither the resources nor the vast authority to confront a truly catastrophic natural disaster that affects the lives of millions of Americans. By the same token, handing off the responsibility for the immediate saving of lives and bolstering of devastated communities to the private sector would be a recipe for even further disaster. I said this once about for-profit healthcare but it can just as easily be applied here: While there's absolutely a role to be played by the private sector in emergency response, you just don't want to leave the question of whether you live or die in the hands of something as soulless as the free market. In theory a business's willingness to cater to whatever you require should benefit both it and you, but we all know that that's not the way it always works these days; it's just not the way many service industry businesses approach things and when your life is at stake it's not a great time to find out that it's cheaper to be left to fend for yourself. Only a sociopath thinks the free market is the answer to everything, up to and including keeping you alive in a disaster.
Obviously, the most important issue is the most immediate -- and in this case that means keeping people safe during this storm and potentially helping them to rebuild their lives after. It's a responsibility we have as Americans because these are our fellow citizens we're talking about. But it'll be interesting to see what real-world effect this monster storm has on the 2012 presidential election and, as such, the future of our country.
In the end, Sandy may have an impact even greater than anyone could've ever imagined, simply by virtue of when it happened during an important election cycle.