Hurricane Sandy may have been downgraded from Category 2 after it barreled through the Caribbean, but it sure didn't feel like it. What was unmistakable, though, was how quickly and completely Sandy downgraded our election. What had been a Category 5 story was suddenly a mere Tropical Disturbance. As Sandy moved in, the election was almost literally moved off the map, as both candidates canceled appearances.
But Sandy didn't just knock the campaign off the front pages; it transformed it as well. At a moment of extreme polarization, Mother Nature brought us together. Suddenly, the artificial walls that our political process erects to separate us into little demographic micro-groups to make us believe we have no mutual interests were blown away by the massive hurricane.
Hurricane Sandy brought about the true bipartisanship our leaders only give lip service to. Suddenly, in a campaign in which the biggest issue, broadly defined, has been the role of government, nobody is saying: Why is government involved? Governors in the affected states aren't asking the "job creators" for help -- they're asking the federal government.
And it wasn't just the federal government, but state and local governments that were responding to protect the lives and property of their citizens. In New York, nearly 400,000 people were evacuated from flood zones, and the subways were shut down (a laborious process that can take up to 10 hours) for only the second time ever. The Department of Homeless Services stepped up their efforts to encourage those living in the streets to come into the shelters. The Virginia National Guard got the go-ahead to bring up 500 troops to help clear roads. And state and local utilities along the East Coast readied thousands of repair crews to help the millions who have lost power.
Then there were the warnings that reminded us that government deployed real human beings who made a life-and-death difference, and that our responsibilities flow both ways. "If you don't evacuate, you are not only endangering your life, you are also endangering the lives of the first responders who are going in to rescue you," said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
We can no longer summon the bipartisanship needed to rebuild our infrastructure, or even adequately repair what we have, but at least we can come together to protect it from the worst -- if we're absolutely forced to by a calamity like Hurricane Sandy. But why can't we have this same responsiveness in times other than natural disasters?
It was only in February of last year that the Republicans proposed a bill to cut $1.2 billion from President Obama's budget proposal for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which operates the satellites that allow us to track hurricanes like Sandy and give accurate and timely warnings. And in a debate during the primaries, Mitt Romney was asked if FEMA should be shut down and disaster responsibility given to the states. His reply: "Absolutely. 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. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?"
Does that include disaster relief? asked moderator John King.
"We cannot -- we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. 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, knowing full well that we'll all be dead and gone before it's paid off. It makes no sense at all."
The Romney campaign responded Monday that Romney wants to "ensure states . . . have the resources and assistance they need to cope with natural disasters." Maybe Hurricane Sandy reset the Etch A Sketch (it doesn't take much of a storm to do that, after all).
But for the moment, we're having a period of bipartisan agreement -- forced on us by something truly bigger than ourselves -- that government is useful. Which is too bad, because we badly need bipartisanship and collective effort not just to rebuild our infrastructure and solve problems like the jobs crisis but to address the root causes of what makes storms like this one so increasingly powerful and increasingly common.
But our election season is drawing to a close without any serious discussion about climate change. "The irony is that the two presidential candidates decided not to speak about climate change, and now they are seeing the climate speak to them," said Mike Tidwell, director of Maryland's Chesapeake Climate Action Network and author of the 2006 climate change book, "The Ravaging Tide." "That's really what's happening here. The climate is now speaking to them-- and to everyone else."
The collective effort, the we're-all-in-this-together spirit, has been great to see. We know that spirit is there, even if we hadn't seen it much in the weeks leading up to this disaster. But it shouldn't take a natural disaster to make us tap into our natural humanity. Let's hope that spirit can linger, even as Sandy moves on.
Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.(c) 2012 Arianna Huffington. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.