Sadie Stern looks out over the choppy Hudson River from a pier along the Hudson River Greenway, Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, in New York. (CX Matiash/AP)
Like most everyone else on the Eastern seaboard, I spent all Monday inside, watching Mother Nature rip my neighborhood a new one, monitoring The Weather Channel, and trying to keep my stir-crazy children from stabbing each other with pipe cleaners.
The storm put me in mind of Hurricane Andrew, which I experienced first-hand back in 1992. Then, as now, everyone was focused on the same stuff: how to keep ourselves safe, and where we could get help. That’s the one hidden dividend of natural disasters: they have a way of cutting through the white noise of marketing and punditry that dominates American popular culture.
The most glaring exception to this rule, in the case of Sandy, has been the puerile election coverage the storm has generated. It’s mostly been about which candidate will get a bounce.
But Sandy isn’t just some variable in the latest polling data. It’s a category 5 example of the glaring philosophical differences between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
I don’t want this to sound partisan, or shrill. But these are the facts:
Last June, when Romney was trying to win the GOP nomination, he enthusiastically agreed that federal disaster response should be slashed to save federal dollars. “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.”
You got that? If a natural disaster rips your house to shreds, the Romney plan is: let’s get the private sector right on the case! That’ll work just great, especially if the folks in question just lost everything they own. I’m sure the private sector will be delighted to help them out, because, I mean, isn’t that what the private sector is for — to help out folks in need?
I’m trying not to be sarcastic about this. But you really need to think about what Romney said, because it’s exactly the same thing he said about the auto bailout — forget government help, let the private sector save Detroit! It’s what he says about sick people with pre-existing conditions, and what he says about the millions whose Medicaid benefits he hopes to cut, and what he hopes eventually to say to Medicare recipients. (Forget that guaranteed medical care you used to get from that awful federal government, granny. Here’s a voucher — the private sector will take care of you!)
Romney’s aides spent Monday insisting that he would never abolish the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). But even his idea of sending disaster relief back to the states is bogus, according to experts like Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “I just cannot envision states doing a very good job in the disaster area on their own,” Tierney told The Washington Post. Why? Because they don’t have the money.
This is how Romney operates. He says he’s going to repeal that terrible Obamacare and allow states to come up with their own health care plans — which sounds great as a sales pitch. But read the fine print: the only reason the Massachusetts plan was feasible is because federal tax dollars paid for most of it.
Obama is far from a perfect candidate, or president. But he campaigned on a promise to learn from the mistakes of his predecessor and improve federal disaster relief, and by all accounts — including that of conservative governors such as Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie — he’s made good on that promise. He’s appointed a professional manager, not a crony, to head FEMA, and been aggressive in making sure the federal government is prepared for disasters.
He didn’t take these measures to score political points. As with the auto bailout, and Obamacare — both deeply unpopular at the time — he acted out of a basic sense that the federal government can and should help Americans in trouble.
For the past 30 years, the right wing of this country has peddled the opposite view: government is the problem, the private sector is the solution. They’ve brainwashed poor and middle class Americans into believing this by appealing to their benighted sense of self-reliance. And they’ve done this even as they dole out billions of federal dollars to corporations and millionaires.
If it does nothing else, the specter of Sandy should put the lie to this insidious line of propaganda.
As I write this, winds of 40 mph are whipping against the windows of our home. A giant maple just crashed into a neighbor’s house down the street. Our power lines are flailing wildly.
What I want right now, especially if things take a turn for the worse, is a president who believes government’s role is to help citizens in need, not when it’s politically expedient, but as a matter of principle.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.