We knew an October Surprise was coming. We just didn't know whether it would come from the Romney campaign or the Obama campaign. In the end, it came from neither. The October Surprise came from Mother Nature, instead, in the form of Hurricane Sandy.
Slamming into the East Coast just one week before Nov. 6, Hurricane Sandy left behind more than a path of death and destruction. In many ways, it also directly impacted the campaign. Both camps were forced to cancel campaign events. States suspended early voting. Some polling places had to be relocated. For several days, the news media ignored politics and devoted all its attention to storm coverage. And Mitt Romney was shuttled off to the sidelines, while President Obama returned to the White House and looked – presidential.
But, beyond the physical, Sandy had a much more powerful impact. She also left behind a powerful message: Beware of Mitt Romney! Because nothing better than Hurricane Sandy illustrates the central issue of this presidential campaign and the fundamental difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.
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It boils down to this: Obama believes there's an important role for the federal government. Romney believes every problem is better handled by the states or private business. That's his entire approach to governance.
On Medicaid, says Romney, give it to the states. Let them handle it. Medicare? Give people a voucher and let them tangle with private insurance companies. Auto manufacturers in trouble? No federal help on the way; let them fail. Roe v. Wade? Overturn it, get the federal government out of the picture, and let each state decide. Same with health care. Leave it up to the states. Some will; some won't. So what?
Now here's where Hurricane Sandy comes in. Believe it or not, Romney's tea-party, hate-the-government philosophy even extends to disaster relief. There'd be no need for FEMA in Romney's world. He'd turn emergency response to natural disasters over to states, to be handled 50 different ways.
On June 13, 2011, in one of the many GOP primary debates, Romney was asked directly by CNN's John King about disaster relief following the tornado that struck Joplin, Mo. "FEMA is about to run out of money and there are some people who say do it on a case-by-case basis and some people who say, you know, maybe we're learning a lesson here that the states should take on more of this role."
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No doubt where Romney stands: "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." Romney went on to say it was "immoral" for the federal government to spend more money on anything, including disaster relief, that would add to the deficit. (At the same time, it's OK to add to the deficit by extending the Bush tax cuts. But, I digress.)
Of course, Romney's position on disaster relief mirrors that of House Republicans, who over the last two years slashed by 43 percent the primary FEMA grants that pay for disaster preparedness. The Ryan budget would further cut into FEMA's budget, as would across-the-board cuts looming as a result of the Republican-inspired sequestration, due to kick in Jan. 1.
On FEMA, Romney's now trying to have it both ways. Once he realized that, in light of Hurricane Sandy, his June 2011 pitch for transferring all responsibility to the states might come back to bite him in the behind, he quickly denied wanting to eliminate FEMA. Yet the very next day, he refused – 14 times! – to answer reporters' questions about whether or not he would retain the agency.
But Romney didn't fool New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Forced to choose between a president who offered disaster relief and a wannabe who thinks the federal government should get out of the disaster-relief business, Christie didn't hesitate to throw Romney under the bus. He realizes what a disaster it would be if states ravaged by a tornado or hurricane were left to cope on their own, with no federal help.
Hurricane Sandy reminds us what's at stake in this election and how wrong Mitt Romney is in his disdain for government. The New York Times summed it up best: "A big storm requires big government." There is no other way.