With the rain pelting brutally and the winds bending the trees, I went downstairs to my building's lobby hours after Sandy had begun attacking Washington, D.C. And there was my U.S. Postal Service carrier, delivering my mail with his usual smile and courteous manner.
This was impressive, and a tribute to the neither-rain-nor-sleet motto the postal service seeks to uphold. But it's also a reminder of a bigger issue, one that has become an underlying theme in both the presidential and down-ticket elections, and that is the critical role of government in sustaining—even saving—our lives.
There was the Coast Guard, rescuing 14 crew members from a tall ship that had run into the path of the storm. The body of another crew member was retrieved by brave Coast Guard members who put the search for bodies—alive or not—ahead of their own personal safety. There were the firefighters and police who tried to keep things from getting even worse in heavily-damaged New York City. And yes, there were even the politicians—the governors and mayors who are often on opposing sides on other matters—who uniformly joined to address the crisis, ordering evacuations, and doing everything they could to keep their constituents safe. With the worst of the storm presumably over, public employees will begin the tough work of rescue and rebuilding.
This is your government at work. And with the battle over the size and role of government central to the election campaigns, it's worthwhile to be reminded of what our government does for us.
This is not to say that government does everything better, or that more layers of bureaucracy are preferable. But there are some things that only government can do, irrespective of the goodwill of private citizens or even the private sector.
President Barack Obama rightly interrupted his campaign to fly back to Washington to monitor the storm, and was predictably, and offensively, tarred by some of his more hateful opponents as trying to make political points out of disaster. Mitt Romney has also been accused of misdeeds, and while some of those comments are terribly unfair to the former governor, he has some explaining to do.
In a debate during the primary season—this was when Romney was acting a lot more right-wing than he is behaving now—the governor was asked if it makes sense for things like disaster response to be handed over to the states. Romney liked that idea broadly, saying in the debate that he thought it was best if things could be administered at the state level, or even by the private sector. This could be problematic, when it comes to disaster response, since only the federal government has the organization and budget authority to act quickly and en masse. But Romney did not outright say he wanted to abolish FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Now, candidate Romney is hosting a relief effort in Ohio—surprise!—for the storm victims. This is in theory a nice idea, although the location of the event in Ohio indeed smacks of political opportunism, since it gives Romney an excuse to campaign in a battleground while appearing to be a charitable leader. But it also sends a wrong message—that somehow disasters like Sandy can be handled with private donations, with the thoughts and prayers of our neighbors and friends. Those things are welcome, but they are not enough.
The federal government can run a deficit by law, which has indeed gotten us into fiscal trouble. But it's also one of the reasons the federal government is uniquely qualified to respond in a crisis like this, particularly a multi-state crisis. Federal guidance, and federal workers, have been essential to managing this weather disaster as best as could be done. They should be thanked—not demonized as pawns of Big Government.