Hurricane Sandy’s approach toward the East Coast Monday brought out a kind of solidarity; we like to pretend that, as a nation, we rally together — and we do. TV news coverage moved from blanket polling analysis to blanket rain and wind analysis. After the last two years of a presidential campaign, that came as a welcome relief.
But the Kumbaya stage won’t last long. Politics is an undeniable aspect of any catastrophe. In a nation where the distribution of power flows from the president down, but the response to a disaster flows from a mayor up, there is bound to be friction in between. Hurricane Katrina pitted a Republican White House against a Louisiana governor and New Orleans mayor of a different party. The tensions around the BP oil spill exposed the political animosity between a Democratic White House and five Republican governors who were unhappy with the response.
Hurricane Sandy will follow that familiar trajectory — politically if not meteorologically. There is a presidential election in its path, and while the campaigns were suspended Monday, the desire to win has not. What makes Sandy politically significant isn’t just that Obama will be judged by the response; it’s also that Mitt Romney, who has endorsed the idea of disbanding FEMA and returning its duties to the states, has good reason to keep quiet.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 fell on a primary election day in New York. With a close presidential election just a week away, Sandy introduced more uncertainty. The Eastern seaboard, though mostly Democratic, includes a couple of swing states, plus tight House and Senate races. In some states, early voting has already been affected. At this point, candidates’ fate may turn on their ground game, and no one predicted that the ground might be littered in debris and fallen branches.