When a natural calamity strikes during the intensely media-scrutinised American presidential campaign, there is no escaping the politics of the disaster
Both politics and the media follow a cute routine when a natural calamity strikes during a major U.S. election campaign. On the campaign trail, the first step is to express solidarity and anguish. The second is to make swift symbolic gestures (e.g. Romney collecting food bags for Hurricane Sandy’s victims at what were scheduled as political rallies). The third is to “call off” major campaign events (or paint them differently) as a sign of sensitivity. The fourth is to express horror at the very thought of politicising natural disaster and human misery. (Subtext: that’s what the other guy does. Not me.) The fifth is to go berserk politicising it and grabbing all the photo-ops it offers. Candidates must “look presidential” while soothing Sandy’s victims.
The media did a lot better this time than they did with Hurricane Gustav during the 2008 campaign. Gustav crippled the Republican Convention at St. Paul, Minnesota. The party’s leaders tied themselves in knots, speaking of making the event “low-key.” And of “taking the politics out” of many sessions. Worse, the ghosts of Hurricane Katrina floated on Gustav’s wings. Which Republican wanted to recall that 2005 disaster? President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney remained on vacation for some days after the disaster (Katrina) struck. And Bush went back to DC before visiting the hurricane-hit region in September. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went shopping.
As Gustav approached in 2008, one television anchor declared: “This is a good time for a timeout on politics.” Then proceeded to the political fallout without batting an eyelid. (While adding the line: “We’ve got a lot of reporters watching that hurricane.”) The dilemma? Openly discussing the politics of the disaster, more so in campaign terms, could seem pretty ghoulish. With Hurricane Sandy, there’s been a greater effort to report better. That too by the media within the zone of disaster and also affected by it. Talking heads on television are another story, of course.
The truth is there is no escaping the politics of the disaster. And that politics goes way beyond the campaigns — though surely impacting on them. It goes to big differences on the role of government. (Romney wanted, not so long ago, to privatise disaster response.) It goes to models of industry and employment that work with far fewer skilled personnel than are needed. Models that have gutted skilled gene pools with profit-driven cost-cutting. It brings Climate back into some kind of focus — and the Visible Hand of human agency in that sphere. (Former Vice-President Al Gore is already speaking of Dirty Energy leading to Dirty Weather, etc.)
Talking about the climate
Climate Change was almost entirely absent in the presidential “debates.” But it’s back in the last lap of the campaign with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsing Obama. The billionaire political independent presides over a city that has lost at least 40 lives in the storm. Bloomberg believes global climate change has to be taken more seriously now. Even if Sandy “may or may not be the result” of it. Based on how Obama responded to the storm, the Mayor believes him to be the best candidate to take on global climate change. Obama never once tackled it during the debates. But Bloomberg’s “aye” has him excited. The President now finds climate change is “a threat to our children’s future, and we owe it to them to do something about it.” There are those other issues that the calamity has thrown up. Some of which are a threat to American children in the present. But with the death toll closing in on 100 and millions of people battered by Sandy, it will be a while before those issues figure.
The death toll will go up when the flooded areas are cleared. In New Jersey, close to two million households are without power (Including this reporter’s). Across the coast, close to six million homes and businesses are without power. And it is not clear when that will be restored. Phone networks and services have collapsed across all these regions. In its 108-year history, the New York subway has not seen anything like the level of flooding and damage Sandy has wrought. Over 18,000 flights have been cancelled and more might go that way.
Which way will Sandy impact the race? Obama was in New Jersey on Wednesday, looking presidential and decisive. That’s very important for television. “Obama tells New Jersey: We are here for you,” run the headlines. It also goes in favour of the President that the state’s Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, is singing his praises. “I cannot thank the President enough for his passion and concern. I was able to witness it today personally.” A staunch Romney supporter, Christie had been trashing Obama not long ago. Simply: in such a crisis, the incumbent does get to look “more presidential” for TV than the challenger. After all, he is already President and wields that power. Christie does need the funds that Obama is pushing New Jersey’s way. And sharing photo-ops with the President in the crisis zone does the Governor no harm either. Christie’s ambitions run to a second term in his post — and beyond. His public praise for Obama has rattled the Romney camp.
Sandy can, however, have other effects. It could affect voting on November 6 as much of the hurricane-hit region may not have limped back to normalcy by then. Quite a few people may be unable to vote on that day. There is already discussion on whether a voting date can be postponed for specific states. And if that could be done legally. There is also the fact that people battered by a major calamity and plunged into darkness and hardship for days can vote in anger against a government or leader. Al Gore’s campaign against George Bush in 2000 dimmed with the drought of that time. And it does seem that even if the post-storm response favours Obama in the hurricane-hit states, most of these favoured him anyway.
Yet, into the fifth day of Sandy’s impact, it does seem the Force is with Obama. Hurricanes are strange political players.