Should Romney's Comments About Defunding FEMA Matter?

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How do you know Mitt Romney's worried about his statement a June 2011 debate that he'd cut funding to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and send its power to the states and the private sector? Well for one, he was asked 14 questions about the agency by pool reporters Tuesday, and ignored all 14 of them. But it's even better to look at one of the few people defending the idea. Most conservatives, from the Heritage Foundation to Michelle Malkin, argue that Romney didn't really want to get rid of FEMA, but just wanted to trim its responsibilities to handling really big disasters. (Romney made no such distinction at the debate.) But at the American Enterprise Institute, James Pethokoukis says Romney was right — the private sector really could do better at emergency response. He cites a study showing Wal-Mart was faster at getting its donated relief packages to victims of Hurricane Katrina than FEMA was under the Bush administration. You might read that as a criticism of Bush's FEMA director at the time, Michael Brown, but for some conservative quarters see it as testament of the resiliency of free enterprise over government planning.

This is really an echo of every defense the Romney campaign has used when attacked for cutting specific government programs. When attacked for wanting to cut some program -- student grants, Obamacare, equal pay legislation -- his campaign's response has been to humanize him with personal anecdotes. President Obama has attacked Romney for wanting to cut funding for students to go to college. The Romney campaign started highlighting the fact that when two young men in his congregation were paralyzed in a car accident, Romney offered to pay for their college tuition. Obama attacked Romney for opposing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Romney's campaign responded by saying that when he was governor of Massachusetts, his chief of staff was worried about seeing her kids enough, so Romney gave her flex-time. In other words, the solution to large-scale social problems like the high cost of college and pay discrimination is to personally know someone both as wealthy and as charitable as Mitt Romney. Who needs FEMA when a company like Wal-Mart might step in?

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The New Republic's Alec MacGillis pins Romney's 2011 statement on his need to seem like a die-hard federalist during the Republican primary. He threaded the needle of supporting Romneycare while opposing Obamacare by saying health care is a state issue. While Romney hasn't clarified his previous statement, he did spend 20 minutes on a conference call with FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, CNN reports. You can see how this poses a bit of a problem for the campaign. While Romney faces questions about the theoretical optimal size of government, Obama will tour New Jersey with Republican Gov. Chris Christie to survey the damage on Thursday and direct what the government should do. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.