On the surface, it would appear that Hurricane Sandy, the superstorm affecting 900 miles of the Eastern Coast, has halted the presidential campaign in its tracks. Both Obama and Romney have made it a point to cancel campaign events and suspend fundraising emails yesterday and today in Romney's case, out of "respect," in Obama's case, out of presidential duty. Sure, the candidates have named surrogates (Bill Clinton for Obama, Chris Christie for Romney), but the men themselves have cleared their schedules for Tuesday. At a news conference Monday, Obama claimed the election wasn't even on his mind. "The election will take care of itself next week," he said.
But make no mistake: Natural disasters are all about politics, no matter how little the candidates want to talk about them. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina laid bare an inept and unprepared federal government in a sudden and unmistakable way. That woeful failure echoed in the mind of Mike Bloomberg, New York's mayor, when he overprepared for Hurricane Irene last year, and it's certainly on the radar of Obama and Romney. You can bet each of their campaign advisers are warning them not to screw this up.
And since extreme weather has become par for the course, no matter how much climate change deniers want to wave it off, a candidate's position on FEMA and disaster relief matters. The candidates are mostly staying mum, but the media are not. On Sunday, the Huffington Post unearthed a telling set of comments from Romney, made in 2011. After he was asked whether emergency management should be returned to the states, he replied: "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." The New York Times responded with a devastating editorial, which argued that this kind of mentality is what allowed Katrina to spin out of control.
The Romney campaign confirmed their candidate wouldn't abolish FEMA, and he had a chat with them yesterday. Still, runningmate Paul Ryan's budget would drastically reduce funding to the agency. And Romney's comments have Republican support; GOP strategist Ron Bonjean argued yesterday that "most people don't have a positive impression of FEMA."
Obama and Romney may not be allowed to make this storm about the campaign, but each candidate's position on emergency response reveals their respective philosophies on the role of government. It reveals how they feel about the most vulnerable members of society, who inevitably get hit hardest when disaster strikes. Factoring this into your vote isn't "disrespectful" or "insensitive." On the contrary, it's smart.