Guest Post by Esther Elizabeth Susan – February 2016
Author Bio: Esther Elizabeth Suson is a freelance research writer for potus2016.org and hankeringforhistory.com. She loves history, economics, politics, and of course, writing. For any comments or questions, you may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Foreword by the Progressive Cynic: Today, Emergency Manager Darnell Earley is scheduled to be deposed by the Congressional Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigating the Flint water crisis. It will likely be a while before we know what is said during this deposition, but this development does make it timely to discuss the political ramifications of the Flint water crisis. The following article is a guest post by one of my readers which provides an interesting take on this situation.
During the Democratic New Hampshire debate on February 4, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC asked the candidates to give a response to the Flint water crisis. Hillary Clinton, the first to respond, holds the whole state of Michigan responsible. “There have to be ways we can begin to move and make them pay for it and hold them accountable.”
Bernie Sanders spoke on the same theme, saying, “I did ask for the resignation of Governor Rick Snyder, because his irresponsibility was so outrageous. What we are talking about are children being poisoned.” Clinton visited Flint 3 days after the debate, and Sanders is putting up a campaign office in the town. A Democratic debate is scheduled in Flint on March 6.
The Republican Presidential Candidates’ Response to the Flint Water Crisis
In contrast, the January 28 GOP debate in Iowa was noticeably lacking in any discussion on the Flint water crisis. The only reference to it was a question by Fox News’ Bret Baier, thrown to Ohio Governor John Kasich. It asked how he, were he Governor of Michigan, would have handled the crisis.
Kasich answered, “Well, you’ve got to be on top of it right away. […] the fact is, every single engine of government has to move when you see a crisis like that. […] when you see a problem, you must act quickly to get on top of it.”
Other Republican candidates are equally vague on the subject. Marco Rubio, generally 3rd in Republican polls, told a reporter, “it’s just not an issue we’ve been quite frankly briefed or apprised of […].” Jeb Bush defends Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s decision to take responsibility. Donald Trump says it was a “shame,” but adds: “I shouldn’t be commenting on Flint.”
The outliers among the Republican candidates are Ted Cruz and Ben Carson. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, was the first of the GOP candidates to respond. He said, “The people deserve better from their local elected officials, but the federal bureaucracy is not innocent in this as well.”
Ted Cruz is as outraged as any outraged citizen might wish. He told New Hampshire, “Flint is an absolute outrage. You’ve got your own government poisoning the citizens. You look at the basic responsibilities of government, making sure our water’s clean is really near the top.” However, the Cruz campaign has been accused of partisanship in bottled water distribution.
Why the GOP Silence?
If the Flint water crisis had occurred in any but an election year, partisanship might have been a smaller issue. As it stands, it is impossible to avoid the fact that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, accused of responsibility for the Flint water crisis, is Republican.
At best, that is a simplistic (though not necessarily false) analysis of why the Republican candidates are so quiet. What they seem to want, rather, is to protect the Federal government–and their desired future position–from responsibility in the crisis.
This point rings through their rhetoric. Either they bring “every level” of government into the issue, like Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, or profess some ignorance of what goes on at the local and state levels, like Rubio and Trump. This is wildly different from the declarations of both the Democrat candidates, who took personal interest in the issue.
In this, we have to look at the Republican candidates as Republicans, whether or not the Establishment GOP wants them (or vice versa). First, as small-government Republicans, joining the discussion would be risky to themselves. To take a more personal interest in the debate would be to face questions about
What would happen if the Republicans were to join social media and the Democrats in condemning Governor Snyder and the Flint water crisis? First, they would imply that the Federal government has direct responsibility in local and state crises. Instead, by refusing to criticize Governor Snyder, they support the state dealing with its own issues.
Second, if the GOP candidates joined the barrage of insults against the Governor, sooner or later they would risk being called out on the wisdom of running a state on business-sense. One only has to look at their free-market, privatized healthcare insurance policies to see why they would not want that kind of scrutiny.
Governor Rick Snyder himself is something of a Republican pitfall, if any candidate were to actively support or condemn him. Governor Snyder is an MBA (1979), and he held no public office before the Michigan Governorship in 2011. His private life was spent as Executive Vice President, and then President and COO, of Gateway.
In other words, his credentials undermine the basic theme of GOP economic and social policies. Governor Snyder, an example of the extremes that can be created by such policies, will loom over their shoulders. This makes it especially difficult for Donald Trump, whose reputation is built on his self-made billions and lack of political experience.
The Advantage of the Democrats
First of all, both Clinton and Sanders have the advantage over practically the entire GOP line-up by making the Flint water crisis a Federal concern. To families in Flint and those following the Flint crisis, there is nothing more comforting than knowing the highest public office in the land will lend support to a personal issue.
In a statement that made headlines, Clinton said to Flint, “This has to be a national priority. What happened in Flint is immoral. The children of Flint are just as precious as the children of any part of America.” She adds, “this is not the time for politics as usual. I will fight for you in Flint no matter how long it takes.”
Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton highlight the civil rights issues that the Flint water crisis has brought to light. 57% of Flint’s residents are African-American, and over 40% are under the poverty level. In contrast, the national average is 13.2% and 15.4% respectively.
The town, simply, was a potential target because it posed no political or economic threat to the local or state public offices. At the moment, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission is investigating whether or not such discrimination played a part in the Flint water crisis.
Sanders says, “One wonders if this were a white suburban community what kind of response there would have been. Flint, Michigan, is a poor community. It is disproportionately African-American and minority, and what has happened there is absolutely unacceptable.” Sanders is currently demanding Governor Snyder’s resignation over the issue.
Clinton, on the night before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, spoke in South Carolina. “I’ll tell you what, if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would’ve been action.” She adds, “When the children of majority-black Flint, Michigan, have been drinking and bathing in lead-poisoned water for more than a year, making sure all Americans have clean air and water isn’t just a health issue, it’s a civil rights issue.”
The Bigger Issue
The Republicans could probably leave the issue alone and hope it goes away, except that Flint is not the only town with water problems. And now, after the Flint water crisis, other towns are receiving national attention. Tweets from St. Joseph, Louisiana, have made the most waves: the water is yellowish-brown. People believe there is an unfixed broken pipe somewhere.
Atlanta, Georgia, is reported as having “fair-to-substandard drinking water” by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Houston in Texas, Phoenix in Arizona, Seattle in Ohio, and New Orleans in Louisiana are reported to have buried or omitted crucial information about their water sources. Their water sources are also at risk of contamination.
These are all cities in traditionally Red states, or in swing states like Ohio. The Flint water crisis highlights the extreme worst of what could happen if water sources and pipelines were not treated or maintained properly. Even more telling for the presidential elections, it highlights the likely response of the presidential candidates to similar crises.
The Democratic Opportunity
As the hearings for involved employees draw near, and suits against Governor Snyder increase, it does not seem likely this issue will go away anytime soon. As other towns and cities join the social media campaign for clean water, attention will only increase. With the Republicans’ hands and tongues tied, this is a Democratic opportunity they should not let go of.