Presidential campaigns are like slow motion job interviews that unfold for well over a year. In this way, the character and essential personality traits of a candidate ultimately come through, and in Mitt Romney’s case, his actions during Hurricane Sandy cemented his as a campaign unparalleled in its cynicism toward the electorate. As the political chattering class wrung its hands over Romney’s quandary over “what to do” as a once-in-a-lifetime storm pounded the East Coast, they largely gave him a pass over what he ended up doing – holding a campaign rally masquerading as a “relief event” hundreds of miles away from the damage, complete with pre-purchased goods that the agency the event was purported to be for, the Red Cross, asks people not to send. Meanwhile, his campaign went up with auto bailout advertising so bald-faced in their falsity, leaders of both General Motors and Chrysler saw fit to publicly rebuke the purported “car guy” for his lies.
As it turned out, Hurricane Sandy ended up being the third “POTUS moment” Romney failed during the campaign. This summer, he toured England, Israel and Poland, thinking he would burnish his foreign policy credentials, get a few nice photo ops with world leaders and “appear” Presidential. Instead, his trip was a gaffe-laden train wreck complete with blaring headlines in England of “Mitt the Twit” after he insulted that country’s security preparation for the Olympics, off the record insults to Palestinians and the sight of his traveling press aide telling the media to “kiss his ass” in Poland. Next, Romney attempted to inject himself in the middle of the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, issuing a press release on 9/11, itself the anniversary of another awful day in our nation’s history, that was nakedly political and factually inaccurate (two themes he has mastered). The blowback was swift, not just from mainstream media and the Obama camp, but by wizened GOP foreign policy “hands,” who thought the Governor’s actions intemperate and inappropriate in a time of crisis. In both cases, Romney proved himself to be equal parts amateur and opportunist. In the former, he managed to trip over a bar set an inch above the ground – he was incapable of responding to softball questions during a trip geared to make no news; the latter showed his willingness to put party above country. Instead of issuing a simple statement of support for the President and our fallen Americans, he took the low road, appearing petty and small instead of noble and high minded.
When Hurricane Sandy hit, Romney was given one last chance to show his Presidential timber and once again, he failed to deliver. While he was hamstrung by a prior statement about abolishing FEMA and shifting emergency management to the states, or, ideally, the private sector (another theme – shape shifting policy statements caught on tape), his campaign opted to go forward with an event even as Sandy’s devastation was still being assessed. All the Romney team did was re-package a campaign rally as a “relief” rally – same speakers, some entertainment, same site, just a different name. To his credit, McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed teased out important details of the Potemkin village the event actually was – complete with $5,000 in goods purchased by the Romney advance team the night before – which simply amplified the embarrassment of Romney’s failure, on fourteen occasions, to answer questions from the press about his views on FEMA in light of the Hurricane. Moreover, as Rachel Maddow and others noted, the Romney team collected goods the Red Cross prefers people not donate (food and clothing) instead of asking people to donate money or blood (two things the Red Cross does want people to donate). This error, coming from a guy whose wife piously trumpets his charitable giving, was cruel irony.
While Romney was holding his fake relief event, his campaign unleashed a new round of TV and radio ads in Ohio about the auto bailout that every reputable media outlet, in addition to the heads of GM and Chrysler, called false. The ads, which claimed auto jobs were being moved to China, when in fact, jobs are being created here to sell cars to China, were ridiculed and debunked, but no matter to Team Romney. It simple plowed ahead with the bogus claims, offering a nice bookend to its campaign, whose first ad edited comments made by President Obama in 2008 when discussing John McCain by giving viewers the impression Obama was expressing a sentiment about his own campaign (“if the election is about the economy, we lose …”). That the ads resulted in workers frantically calling their employer to find out if in fact their jobs would be lost was of no moment to the Governor, even as he has lambasted Obama’s job creation record.
Romney most assuredly is benefitting from a deep-seated desire by many Republicans to vote out the President. In 2012, the enthusiasm among conservatives to get rid of Obama is palpable, and although Romney is not their ideal candidate, most have decided to hold their nose and vote for him, which makes Romney’s actions in the wake of Hurricane Sandy all the more vexing. Having locked down his base, and having made a calculated (and cynical) move to the center at the first Presidential debate, the natural disaster offered Romney an easy chance to be above the fray, a “statesman” who put country before politics. In fact, one of his key surrogates, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, offered a perfect example of just that conduct. Christie was generous in his praise of the President’s assistance to his state, blunt about the importance of life and property above political considerations and apolitical in his comments that disasters don’t only affect Democrats or Republicans.
In addition to practicing good government, Christie practiced pitch-perfect politics, a lesson Romney should have taken to heart. If he was insistent on holding a “relief” event in the middle of the storm, he could have led by example, donating a small percentage of his $250 million fortune to the Red Cross, encouraging his supporters to do the same, and avoided the image of citizens handing him goods his own staff had purchased the night before. He also could have issued a bland, but supportive press release about the need for people to come together in a time of need and even <gasp> lauded the President’s conduct. Lastly, he could have simply stopped campaigning for a day, maybe even two, a signal that he was willing to sacrifice precious hours so close to an election because the moment demanded it; instead, he did none of these things, and went for political expediency and Kabuki theatrics. Voters who have paid attention to this year’s campaign have now had the chance to see Romney audition for President on stages that demand reassurance, responsibility and sobriety and what they have seen is a man who offers none of those things, only his own self-interest in the service of his own advancement.