The ruin and hardship inflicted by a natural disaster can reveal truths that political propaganda tends to obscure. When Hurricane Sandy destroyed swaths of the Northeast, darkened our largest city and plunged a huge section of the nation into crisis, the anti-government ideology of the Tea Party Republicans — and of its panderers like Mitt Romney — was exposed as pretense and nonsense.
Suddenly responsible for saving their communities and their people, politicians of every stripe reached out for help from the big Washington government and the liberal Democratic president many of them had previously reviled. They were duly impressed by his alert, active and concerned response.
None of this should have surprised us. What we learned from Sandy is the same lesson that Katrina ought to have taught us years ago: The right wing disdain for government can imperil your health, your family's safety and your nation's security.
Yet we clearly needed to learn it all again — and the events of the past few days have been starkly instructive.
At the center of the storm's aftermath stood New York governor Andrew Cuomo, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey governor Chris Christie, different in political outlook but united in their commitment to provide relief to their communities and in their own need for assistance from the federal government. None of these men is an anti-government ideologue. Surrounded by suffering and wreckage, they looked to Washington because no other power could begin to cope with the boggling problems they confront, both immediately and as they contemplate reconstruction.
The partisan divisions of a national election shouldn't matter at such a moment, as Christie observed impatiently when a Fox News anchor suggested that he provide a photo opportunity for Romney in the disaster area. What rightly mattered to the New Jersey governor was President Obama's focused and intelligent presence — and he didn't hesitate to praise the Democrat whose leadership he has questioned so often since the Republican convention in August.
Now the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the military services and all the other powers of government are mobilizing, as they have done so many times before, to bring relief and rebuilding to devastated communities. Having struck the nation's media and financial center, this storm is more visible than many previous disasters, but the principle always remains the same: America is one nation that lifts up those in pain and in need together.
This catastrophe is different, too, because it occurred during the final days of a presidential election — creating a tricky situation for Romney or any other challenger, to be sure. But after years of encouraging anti-government extremism in order to win his party's nomination, the Republican candidate finds himself in even greater difficulty.
While the president canceled his campaign schedule and flew northward to join the relief effort, Romney struggled for relevance. Presumably with the best intentions, he tried to transform an Ohio rally into a charitable gathering, where his campaign would collect canned food and bottled water for hurricane victims. But then his campaign workers were caught purchasing cases of food and water at a local Walmart, evidently planning to stage fake giving if necessary.
As he played his role in this flummery, Romney repeatedly refused to answer questions from reporters about his vow to dismantle FEMA as a cost-cutting measure. It would be "immoral" to spend money on federal disaster relief, as he told a debate audience in 2011, when the government is running a substantial deficit. And it is true that the budget and tax policies promoted by Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, would require such significant cuts in domestic spending as to decimate disaster relief.
Disbanding FEMA and discarding its skilled personnel apparently would be fine with Romney, who said "absolutely" when asked by CNN's John King whether he would consign disaster relief to the states rather than the federal government. For that matter he would go still further, said the former Massachusetts governor; best of all would be to let the private sector assume FEMA's responsibilities.
Nobody asked Romney how a privatized FEMA would function, but it is interesting to imagine the private-equity version of disaster management — and how that entity might squeeze profit from tragedy. Under present circumstances, the Romney campaign denies any plan to abolish FEMA, but who really knows?
In this awful moment Christie, Cuomo, Bloomberg — and every other official watching them — must have realized that should cataclysm strike their city or state, they have a reliable partner in President Obama. The Romney Republicans inspire no such confidence.
Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer (www.observer.com). To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.