Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Crossfire hurricane II: Praisesongs for the president

REX HUPPKE tweeted today: “The National Weather Service has downgraded Sandy from a Hurricane to a Category 4 Political Football.”

The Chicago Tribune columnist was cracking wise, of course; he knew well that the toll from Superstorm Sandy, the second American tsunami in seven years, was serious and climbing: at this writing 46 deaths, 7 million people without power in at least a dozen states, 16,000 flights canceled, parts of West Virginia blanketed in two feet of show. The Associated Press reported drifts 4 feet deep at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

For the second day, President Obama indicated that he gets it, shaping the contours of the crisis for the country. “It's very important for the public to ... listen to your state and local officials. Follow instructions,” he said at Red Cross national headquarters in Washington. “The more you follow instructions, the easier it is for our first responders.”

“My thoughts and prayers are with all the families who lost loved ones,” he said. “It's not clear that we have counted up all of the fatalities at this point. Obviously this is something that is heartbreaking for the entire nation.”

And the president put the word out to federal agencies: “Do not figure out why we can't do something. I want you to figure out how we do something. I want you to cut through red tape; I want you to cut through the bureaucracy. There is no excuse for inaction at this point. I want every agency moving forward to make sure we are getting the resources where they are needed as quickly as possible.”

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On MSNBC’s “Hardball,” assessing the political impact of Sandy, Chuck Todd observed: “This is a case where good politics is not playing politics.” His reaction seems a bit calculated. It suggests that a central motivation for Obama’s immediate reaction to the crisis is political rather than humanitarian — that he’s trying to paint the corners on the public perception of how he’s doing his job, rather than just doing the job he swore a constitutional oath to do.

When people have died on your watch at the hands of a natural disaster, the political takes a back seat to the immediately practical. That’s not to say that the president isn’t aware of how the public looks at him right now; it’s to suggest that, ironically enough, at this dangerous hour, the president doesn’t really care.

Just as ironically, and thanks to an unlikely supporter, he doesn’t really have to.

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THE STATE of New Jersey bore much of Sandy’s punch, with whole communities under water or nearly so, and facing monumental cleanup: homes washed away in Point Pleasant; devastation in Belmar; flooding in Cape May; Newark and poorer neighborhoods inundated. For residents of the Garden State, there’s been no escaping it.

For some of yesterday and much of today, there’s also been no getting away from Chis Christie, New Jersey’s prickly, irrepressible Republican governor and, in the past, a reliable critic of the Obama administration.

In the past. Christie, who made the rounds of the talk shows and news programs on CNN, CBS, MSNBC and Fox News, dutifully relayed the results of conversations with the president on the myriad problems facing his state. Result: The stuff that Obama campaign ads are made of.

“He has expedited the designation of New Jersey as a major disaster area,” Christie said. “The president has been outstanding on this, and so have the folks at FEMA. …

“The president has been all over this and he deserves great credit,” Christie said. “It’s been very good working with the president and his administration.”

Imagine that. Right now, President Obama’s best surrogate is a Republican governor — the same one who delivered the keynote address at the party’s own convention.

The same Chris Christie who, at an Oct. 19th Romney rally in Virginia, said, “the president doesn’t know how to lead. … He’s like a man wandering around in a dark room, hands up against the wall, clutching for the light switch of leadership and he just can’t find it ...”

In the last 24 hours or so, it can’t have escaped the governor’s attention that, with millions of his fellow citizens living out the very lights-out scenario he comically described ... maybe the president knows how to lead after all.

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CHRISTIE’S fulsome praise complicates things for Team Romney. There’s no way for the campaign  or the RNC to spin this away. In an angrily partisan campaign, Christie offered a non-ideological reaction to the government’s non-ideological response to a thoroughly non-ideological crisis, and people will take notice. Voters too.

Mitt Romney, the James Carville-described “serial windsock,” may have finally found a hurricane he can’t flutter his way through. Not a metaphorical hurricane, but a real one. Romney faces the impact of his own words from the campaign trail. In the CNN Republican candidates’ debate in June 2011, he was asked whether FEMA should be shuttered, with its responsibilities assumed by the individual states.

“Absolutely,” he said. “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 the opposite question, what should we keep?”

“Including disaster relief, though?” asked CNN’s John King, the debate moderator.

“We cannot, we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids,” Romney said. “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.”

Today, as the full scope of the devastation of the country’s most populous and economically rich region got clear, so did the need for FEMA and everything it does. That’s probably why Romney had absolutely nothing to say about his June 2011 position on FEMA, or what his position is on the need for the agency today. Despite being asked what that position is by reporters, literally a dozen times.

It’s obvious that the campaign is in suspended animation — even with a Romney campaign rally today in Kettering, Ohio, a rally only half-disguised as a “storm relief event,” with the candidate bagging canned and packaged goods for delivery to the storm zone. “We’re going to box these things up in just a minute and put them on some trucks, and then we’re going to send them into, I think it’s New Jersey,” Romney said according to The Washington Post.

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And so Mitt Romney’s in another box, this one a force of nature. Right now, optically and politically, Romney is the odd man out. He doesn’t figure in what’s going on in the states most directly affected by Sandy. He’s got his face pressed against the window watching the most important domestic story of the year — besides the election itself — going down, essentially, without him.

Sandy is the ultimate manifestation of a local event: a local event with national implications. That’s the impact of Sandy: something catastrophic that’s happened to a series of localities at the same time. There’s nothing more local than a 75-mph wind moving the sand of a nearby beach to your front door. And your lawn. And your car.

FEMA’s initially well-coordinated response, directed by President Obama, is what federal governance comes down to in these situations, when capably applied: thinking nationally and acting locally — bringing action, not rhetoric.

Romney’s in no position to offer any action. And burdened with his own rhetoric about the “immorality” of federal disaster relief, he’s got no choice now but to suck it up and watch federal disaster relief at work. However well-intentioned his pass-the-hat gesture in Kettering might have been, Romney’s reduced to looking like the local TV anchor handing out bags of groceries at the station’s holiday charity drive.

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RIGHT NOW we may be seeing the beginning of something as much as the end of something else. Christie’s serial praisesongs for the president were at least an outward sign of the kind of practical, moderate politics the Republicans need. Christie — the Republican governor of an otherwise reliably Democratic state — has internalized this at the state level.

Christie’s also apparently smart enough to realize how the current crisis, tragic as it is and will be, could be used to forge the kind of bipartisan mindset to problem-solving the nation has been clamoring for. He can be captive to the situational with the best of them, but he’s had more than one Sister Souljah moment with his own party. That willingness to stand on principles wider than the ones defined by the party’s leadership, that nerve to have a compass with a clear moral heading, makes Chris Christie as close to a moderate as the party has today. Could be just what the GOP needs in 2016.

New York magazine columnist Frank Rich may have said it best, in a tweet today: “Maybe it turns out that Christie is the October Surprise.”

Image credits: Christie: via youtube.com. Obama: MSNBC. Sandy cloud cover over New Jersey: NOAA/NASA. Romney: AFP/Emmanuel Dunand. 

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