Mitt Romney's Perfect Storm

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What the Republican candidate doesn't understand about global warming, emergency response mechanisms, and what it means to look presidential

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Mitt Romney collects food donations at a "relief" event in Kettering, Ohio, on Tuesday. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Whatever else Hurricane Sandy has done to the American landscape over the past two days it surely has altered the dynamics of the final days of the campaign between President Obama and Mitt Romney. Suddenly, millions of Americans, including Republican and independent voters swamped by the devastating storm, are talking again about the impacts of global warming and climate change. Suddenly, the whole nation has been reminded that the Republican candidate last year suggested that it was "immoral" for taxpayers to continue to countenance the funding of federal disaster relief at its current level.

There is video of candidate Romney cavalierly dismissing global warming at the Republican National Convention -- the crowd laughed -- even as one state after the other on the East Coast deals with the deadly aftermath of the Atlantic Ocean's sudden rise. There is video of candidate Romney blasting the Federal Emergency Management Agency even as federal relief workers swarm into New Jersey and New York to help save lives. There is video of Governor Chris Christie, one of the most popular Republican officeholders in the nation, sharply praising the work this week of both FEMA and President Obama.

This cannot be the message or the campaign optics the Romney team had hoped for during the last week before the election. At first, the Romney team stuck by the candidate's FEMA comment, making roughly the same "states' rights" arguments Romney had made back in 2011. But by Monday evening that had changed. Evidently Romney now seeks to reassure voters that he does not plan to gut FEMA after all. A flip? A flop? The media want to know. Tuesday afternoon the Washington Post was running a story with the following headline: "Romney ignores questions about eliminating FEMA."

Romney responded by holding a series of so-called "storm-relief events" on Tuesday-- trying to make a political message without seeming to campaign. The message sought to highlight the benefits of private charity during natural disasters like this one and Romney sought to portray himself as both compassionate and capable of sacrifice. At one such event in Ohio, asking people to donate items, Romney told an odd story about cleaning up "rubbish and all sorts of paper goods" after a football game, about how everyone was responsible for their own "lane" on the field, about how small acts of charity eventually can add up.

But if video of that football story makes it onto the news tonight it will not be a good thing for Mitt Romney. What happened in New Jersey and New York is not a football game. The "relief" needed here is not trash pick-up. And agencies like FEMA, and its state counterparts, are vital precisely because they don't help just one person at a time. There is no time for that when the flood waters rise. Massive disasters require massive relief efforts. And as Dave Weigel first pointed out anyway, FEMA itself notes that it prefers cash donations because the processing of "unsolicited donated goods" takes up too many resources.

When it comes to disaster relief, it's conceivable that Mitt Romney has to spend a little time and energy convincing remaining undecided voters that he's not the second coming of George W. Bush and that a Romney Administration won't foul up next term's natural disasters the way the previous Republican administration fouled up the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. If you are a victim of Sandy today, you might reasonably be asking yourself: Which one of these guys do I want in charge the next time the winds howl, the rain falls and the streets flood? It's hard to see how the comparison would flatter the contender over the president.

For his part, Obama stopped campaigning -- through Wednesday at least -- and has a huge home-field advantage over the next few days. He gets to appear to be "presidential" by being president. There were the telephone calls pledging support to affected governors, including the aforementioned Christie. There was the unannounced visit to the Red Cross office Tuesday with a pledge to cut through bureaucratic tape to help Sandy's victims. And there is now the scheduled visit to New Jersey on Wednesday to see some of the damage. This is a familiar ritual to Americans, and Obama has learned -- like Bill Clinton -- to do it very well.

Tens of millions of Americans are directly affected by Hurricane Sandy. Tens of millions more are affected by the relationships we have with its victims. And there are millions of Americans who are watching the catastrophe unfold from afar, again struggling to believe the images we are seeing from Manhattan. In this sense, as the challenger seeks to present himself as "presidential," the past two days have presented both an opportunity and a problem for Romney. The opportunity is obvious. So is the problem: Based upon his prior statements, and his policy choices, it's hard to know which Romney is going to show up at the disaster scene.

If he were president today amid Sandy's water, Mitt Romney would have to answer all those questions about where he stands on FEMA as well as new ones about why he thinks climate change and global warming are a joke. He would have to answer why his fellow Republicans, including his vice-presidential pick Paul Ryan, have sought so hard in Congress to neuter the federal agency. FEMA is like the government itself -- fun to rag on until you actually need it to stay alive. Wouldn't it be positively biblical if an act of God helped convince Americans that when the big winds come they are still more comfortable with the guy they've got?

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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