With a huge swath of the country digging out from a terrible storm, Mitt Romney seems to have found new respect for FEMA.
When Hurricane Sandy devastated the Eastern Seaboard just days ahead of the 2012 election, disaster relief became a campaign issue overnight — and one that presented a challenge to Romney. While the storm offered President Obama photo-ops and praise from Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Romney has struggled to carve out his own position on the federal government’s role in disaster relief efforts.
After arguing during the Republican primary that the states should oversee disaster relief efforts, the Romney campaign this week has been slowly carving out a position that does not ignore the federal government’s role. The most clarifying comment on disaster relief came late Wednesday in a statement to CBS News.
“I believe that FEMA plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters,” Romney said in a statement from his campaign. “As president, I will ensure FEMA has the funding it needs to fulfill its mission, while directing maximum resources to the first responders who work tirelessly to help those in need, because states and localities are in the best position to get aid to the individuals and communities affected by natural disasters.”
But Romney’s emphasis on the role of government is new to his position on disaster relief.
Before Monday, the last thing Romney had said about FEMA was to espouse a small-government approach of sending aid back to the states — or better yet, putting disaster relief in the hands of private industry.
Romney called for shifting responsibility to the states in a June 2011 primary debate, responding to a question about federal relief efforts and FEMA: “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”
Romney counted disaster relief among those programs that could be cut in order to cut federal spending. “We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids,” Romney said in the debate. “It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids.”
But with Sandy bearing down on the East Coast Monday, the Romney campaign clarified that Romney does in fact see a role for the federal government in disaster relief — albeit a secondary one. “Governor Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions,” said campaign spokesperson Amanda Henneberg. “As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.”
The next day in Ohio, Romney ignored repeated questions from reporters on his plans for FEMA if elected. During a relief event put on by the campaign, Romney collected canned goods from supporters while television pool reporters asked multiple questions on whether he would eliminate FEMA. It wasn’t till the next day that his campaign clarified his position.
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.