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On Hurricane Politics and Policy

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Yesterday I walked around Red Hook, a coastal patch of Brooklyn that was hit hard by the storm last night. The sidewalks are littered with soaked furniture. Residents are picking through piles of belongings in front of their apartments, deciding what might be salvageable.

Many ground floor and basement buildings were completely flooded. They are now surrounded by groups of residents, neighbors and emergency workers removing water in any way they can. Some buildings had hoses blasting water back out to the street. At other houses, people improvised, hauling garbage bins or buckets to reduce the water in their homes, one trip at a time.

It is no surprise to find people working together throughout the commotion: neighbors sharing information, residents working on their buildings, first responders directing traffic and focusing on the hardest hit buildings. These kind of crises tend to bring people together. Surveying the response today, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo heralded the first responders who risked their lives, heading into flooding areas, to save others. People here know a lot about the bravery of this city's firefighters and police officers.

It would be an easy mistake, however, to limit our response to broad rhetoric and gauzy salutes. That is because the performance of our collective disaster response machinery is being tested amidst one of the most widespread, coordinated crackdowns on public employees in modern history. From New Jersey to Wisconsin, public employees have faced significant cutbacks, from tangible financial support to their right to pool their power and bargain collectively. Beyond the labor rights of the employees themselves, the very concept of government emergency relief is under attack by significant elements of the Republican Party.

At a partisan level, it is possible to simply seek an electoral advantage here. Democrats may tell voters that applying Republican principles to disaster relief is literally dangerous. The Obama Campaign has not taken this course, and as a political matter, it does not need to. That story has enough narrators already. But there is also a more significant imperative here.

At a policy level, this is the time to explain, in plain and humanitarian terms, that on matters of safety and insurance, government is not a choice. It is a necessity.

Americans have recently lived through a series of dangerous traumas -- 9/11, Katrina, the financial crisis -- and the last resort was always the government. (That is a historical fact, although it is often presented as an ideological view.) Yet at the very same time, one of the two political parties has developed a libertarian skepticism towards the role of government that rivals the Goldwater Era. This year's GOP debates revealed that reality -- Mitt Romney advocated the reduction and privatization of FEMA, for example, while Ron Paul drew applause for saying sick Americans should die instead of receiving emergency care from the government. It is not a minor fact to observe that Mr. Paul's approach is currently illegal, because the Republican Party of 1986 passed a law requiring government-funded hospitals to provide care in emergencies (the EMTLA, signed by President Reagan).

Now for many conservatives, there is a counterpoint to all this. They argue that the recent crises demonstrate that government is not up to the job, from the Katrina response to the way banks were bailed out. But an attack without an alternative isn't policy -- it's commentary. And no one can seriously argue that our firefighters and first responders will do a better job if we cut their funding, as congressional Republicans have proposed.

Ultimately, there is no appetite for "Hurricane politics" in early days of this disaster, and it's unlikely that Republicans are going to lose many races over a poor record supporting first responders. So this is a debate worth having in the coming days, not because it will decide the election, but because it matters to the nation -- and because we owe first responders more than just a "thank you" for their service.

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