By Martin Schram
Our Never-stop News networks got themselves all atwitter over whether Rep. Michele Bachman was really joking ― or evangelically evoking ― when she told a Florida audience Sunday that the week that began with an earthquake and ended with a hurricane was God's way of messaging Washington.
"I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians," the Minnesota Republican said, lapsing into a delivery that, in any other context, would be unmistakable as standup shtick. "We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?" (By now her audience was laughing along, loudly.) "Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending."
So the real question was not whether Bachman was joking. It is whether she really got the right Divine message in this Disaster Week. Not only along the over-covered Washington-Wall Street corridor but in suburban and rural areas, where we just saw citizens in tears, staring at the shattered infrastructure of their once-uncomplicated lives. We have seen homes, stores, highways and bridges that were washed away.
So, what is our real takeaway message of the week? We must put this devastation into the context of one more news factoid. The entire field of Republican presidential contest was also swept aside this week, as two new polls showed Texas Gov. Rick Perry was suddenly the instant frontrunner ― just days after announcing his candidacy. Of course, it is way too early for this to be definitive of anything, half a year away.
But Perry was swept so far ahead of the pack ― he now leads former frontrunner Mitt Romney by at least 12 percentage points in CNN and Gallup polls ― that attention must be paid.
And maybe a new message must be heard. Because this was a week in which all of the talk about cutting spending ― cutting infrastructure spending ― was forgotten. Republican and Democratic governors, senators, representatives and state legislators in states worked with the Obama White House and its FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) officials to bring emergency help to disaster-struck communities. People are stranded; towns are cut off. Wiped out roads and bridges must be rebuilt.
Yet in this year of multiple natural disasters ― tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods ― FEMA faces its own budget disaster. In a year when Republicans have demanded budget cuts, FEMA is just weeks away from running out of money. Just hours before Tropical Storm Irene hit New England, GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, R-Tex., said in New Hampshire that states don't need the federal government's help.
Perry has famously sounded a similar anti-Washington, pro-state independence line ― sometimes. Whooping up a Tea Party rally in Texas, he sparked calls of "Secede!" And when asked about it later he told reporters:
"There's a lot of different scenarios. We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that."
But last May, Perry asked FEMA for massive aid to fight wildfires in all but two of Texas' 254 counties. When FEMA rejected his sweeping request on the grounds that the agency was already funding efforts to combat the 26 largest fires, Perry was furious. So too, while Perry brags about his state's record of job-creation, the largest segment of it came from public sector jobs, not from within the private sector, and Texas benefitted from substantial federal stimulus money his administration accepted.
So the ultimate message of this week of disasters may well be aimed not at Washington politicos but America's voters.
It is time we voters demand our candidates stop lying, deceiving and conning citizens. We need to tell the pols: Stop telling us what we want to hear. Start telling us what we need to know. And have the leadership courage to compromise, now and then.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service (www.scrippsnews.com). E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.