To his supporters, one of Ron Paul's most endearing qualities is his forthrightness. Paul doesn't mince words, he tells you to your face exactly what he thinks. And, to give the man credit, he keeps to his positions even when it would be a lot easier for him to either fudge an answer or tone down his beliefs, the way most politicians do (at certain times).
So it came as no surprise to anyone familiar with Congressman Paul's politics that he would appear this weekend on television -- while Hurricane Irene was still churning up the East Coast -- to reiterate his belief that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) does more harm than good, and shouldn't be a function of the federal government in the first place. For those unaware of the full extent of libertarian thinking on such subjects, it was perhaps a little shocking to hear a Republican candidate for president clearly stating that getting rid of FEMA was part and parcel of the "big government" versus "small government" political debate.
What is astonishing is that nobody seems to have noticed, at least not to the point of taking exception with Paul's stance on FEMA. Ron Paul finally broke through the "media blackout" of his campaign, and appeared this weekend in several national television interviews, making statements like: "We should be like 1900; we should be like 1940, 1950, 1960. I live on the Gulf Coast; we deal with hurricanes all the time. Galveston is in my district." And nobody bothers to address his position?
Jon Huntsman seems to have decided that he's going to run for president as the "sane Republican" in the race, but even Huntsman hasn't addressed Paul's words yet (at least not that I am aware). Eric Cantor not only lives in a district in which Irene threatened, but also hails from the same district a rare East Coast earthquake struck last week; and yet he seems to be supporting the concept of FEMA so far (except that he's demanding further budget cuts to offset Irene disaster relief, but that's not the same thing as coming out against FEMA's existence, exactly).
Six years ago, of course, FEMA was the best bad example of why political cronies shouldn't be awarded important jobs in the federal government, in its disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina. But even President George W. Bush came to realize that paying a little more attention to getting this particular agency to work in an efficient and competent matter was a big deal -- after the fact, of course.
Which is exactly what Democrats in Washington should be arguing today. After watching New Jersey's Chris Christie (a new darling of the Republican Party) not only singing the praises of federal governmental help during a crisis but actually going out of his way to publicly thank FEMA for their efforts in his state, this would seem to now be a mainstream political position.
So where are the Democrats who are arguing today some version of the following:
All we hear from Republicans is 'cut spending, cut spending, cut spending.' But some spending is always necessary, and I think this last weekend proved that the federal government is there for all Americans when a crisis hits that is so big it transcends state governments' ability to react. Ron Paul is out there saying FEMA should be abolished, but we stand for strengthening our country's ability to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies in an efficient and competent manner. It's not so much a question of 'big government' and 'small government,' but rather of government that works well versus government that makes things worse. FEMA was pathetic after Hurricane Katrina. It was not pathetic in responding to Hurricane Irene. There's a big difference when you put someone in charge who knows what they are doing, and give them the resources to make it happen. Rather than having government so small you can 'drown it in a bathtub,' we instead want government to work well when you are at risk of drowning, or are hiding in your own bathtub from the storm.
I have yet to hear anyone make this argument from inside the Beltway, personally. Which is, ironically, what sets Ron Paul apart from most other politicians. Ron Paul has a philosophy of government. He sticks to it, even when it would quite obviously be convenient for him to downplay this position or that. And he's not afraid to tell you -- in detail -- what his philosophy means.
Unlike a lot of other Republican candidates, Ron Paul is not the type to denigrate federal spending in public, and then quietly cash in for his district from the same programs he's denouncing, while hoping nobody will notice. In 2008, Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast and caused massive damage. Ron Paul voted against a bill to send federal disaster aid to the affected areas, even though it included parts of his own district. That is consistency, you have to admit.
Which is why it wasn't too surprising, for anyone familiar with Ron Paul's governmental philosophy, to hear what he had to say this weekend while the hurricane was still happening. What is surprising is the absence of any response from the political world. Of course, Congress is still enjoying its monthlong vacation, so everyone's still out of town. His fellow Republican presidential candidates haven't been noticeably willing to take on Ron Paul's positions on the campaign trail, instead following the "hope he goes away" strategy of dealing with Paul. They are abetted in this, Paul's supporters will tell you, by the mainstream media refusing to give Paul the coverage he deserves.
Personally, I think it would be more interesting for everyone if Paul's comments were given the same weight as Rick Perry's comments, or Michele Bachmann's comments. I'd like to hear the other candidates asked "Do you agree with Ron Paul that FEMA should be abolished?" for instance. Because Paul has consistently staked out one end of the spectrum in the "big/small government" debate. To Ron Paul, the debate isn't actually "big government versus small government," it is more properly stated "government versus no government." It would be interesting to see how far down that path the other Republican candidates are willing to go, and at what point they might actually have some supportive words for a governmental program like FEMA, which is hard at work in a multi-state crisis right now. It would also be interesting to hear Democrats make the "good, effective government is a good thing at times" argument, but I'm not exactly going to hold my breath waiting for that.
[Note: Ron Paul appeared on Fox News Sunday yesterday, but the transcript was not available as of this writing. They do have the video posted at their site, however. Other coverage of Paul's FEMA statements came from a Huffington Post story (with video) and an article from CNN.]
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