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Juliette Kayyem

The politics of disaster

THE ROAD TO the White House cuts across many swing states including Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Under intense speculation and never-ending polling, these states are hot, so to speak. But only one is really hot, literally hot, actually on fire. Blazing Colorado is finding that the politics of a campaign are made more caustic by the politics of disaster.

As President Obama visited Colorado on Friday, it was clear these are fires of historic proportions. The Waldo Canyon blaze has forced the evacuation of 35,000 people and burned 18,500 acres. The tragedy has required calling in firefighters and equipment from around the nation. It has also engendered questions about the sanity of building residential developments in areas prone to fire.

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While those fighting the blaze are surely united in controlling a single enemy, a political feud is already emerging over response and recovery efforts in a state with nine electoral votes. Colorado has a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators, but the House delegation is mixed and the state, before Obama’s victory in 2008, had historically voted Republican in presidential campaigns.

The political dispute is around two different categories of disaster management: resources and relief. On the resources side, Colorado Republicans have launched a full attack on the federal government, arguing that the Obama administration has not invested in sufficient firefighting fleets. The facts are a little more complicated. The fleet of firefighting planes is down; the Federal Forest Service had to ground 33 air tankers after a series of crashes. The fleet reduction, however, occurred in 2004, during the Bush years, and wildfire prevention and response funding has fallen 15 percent since 2010, when Republicans took control of the budget reins in the US House. The administration had already committed to making a new generation of aerial fighters; to fill in the present deficiencies, the military’s C-140s are in the air.

But the bigger reality check is around federal disaster funding. That debate began in 2011 when the disaster budget was held hostage over a philosophical disagreement about the role of government. A bipartisan agreement was reached to continue financial disaster support for the states. That understanding is now largely forgotten in House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s new plan. Under his budget, any disaster relief would have to be offset by other discretionary funding cuts.

These disagreements over government’s largesse are so extreme that Republican Governor John Kasich of Ohio, a former budget-cutting Republican congressman, refused on principle to ask for relief for Ohio after tornados hit earlier this year, until political pressure from mayors in his own party forced him to relent.

While Colorado burns, there is a similar change of heart reflected best by the conduct of Republican congressman Doug Lamborn. As related in Coloradopols.com, in April Lamborn criticized Obama for his “generous use” of disaster declarations, calling for greater fiscal restraint. It is true that the declarations have been generous: there were 240 last year as compared to the previous record of only 80. Ignoring the likelihood that disasters are a reflection of more systemic problems, Lamborn argued that they are state and local issues.

One GOP congressman criticized Obama for his “generous use’ of disaster declarations. Later, he demanded faster relief for his fire-ravaged state.

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Last week, however, Lamborn, along with the entire Colorado delegation, urged the White House to speed up its disaster relief.

As there will be hurricanes and flooding, there will also be politics surrounding them. Hurricane Katrina pitted a Republican White House against a Democratic governor and mayor. The 2010 BP oil spill found a Democratic White House working with five Republicans governors (and potential presidential contenders) in the Gulf states.

Politics are just a reflection of democracy. But politics are different than hypocrisy.

Federal relief, like any social contract, promises those who are overwhelmed by losses outside their control that there will be support for them. It is an insurance policy against tragedies that can occur in any corner of the country.

Just as surely as Colorado’s Republicans are discovering, disaster does not know swing states from the red and blue ones.

Juliette Kayyem is a Globe columnist. She is a former assistant secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration and can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem
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