Words have a way of coming back to haunt Mitt Romney, especially when he says them in front of television cameras.
As the nation braced itself for Hurricane Sandy to slam into the East Coast, Romney's campaign was busily issuing denials to clean up an impression left by last year's "severely conservative" Romney long before he recently was replaced by Moderate Mitt.
No, Team Romney insisted, their candidate does not really want to abolish the Federal Emergency Management Agency, even if his words make him sound like he does.
Confusing? Hey, we're talking about the newly restored Moderate Mitt, the candidate whose beliefs are like Chicago's weather: If you don't like 'em, just wait a few minutes.
The words in question were spoken at a June 2011Republican primary debate in New Hampshire. When the former Massachusetts governor was asked by moderator John King of CNN whether he agreed with those who believe management of emergencies should be returned to the states, Romney not only agreed but went even further. He would turn over as many functions as possible to private, profit-driven companies.
"Absolutely," Romney said. "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."
Odd sentiments, perhaps, for the moderate one-term governor who fathered Massachusetts' state-run health insurance plan. But not for the rebranded "severely conservative" Mitt. He's the Romney who won the Republican presidential nomination and passionately plans to "repeal Obamacare," the national health insurance plan that President Barack Obama based on Romneycare.
The Huffington Post resurrected and highlighted video of that old sound bite under the headline "Mitt Romney in GOP Debate: Shut Down Federal Disaster Agency, Send Responsibility to the States." Team Romney immediately issued a clarifying statement. No, Romney would not abolish FEMA, the campaign assures us, although he still would not mind transferring an undisclosed amount of its functions -- and, presumably, expenses -- to the states.
"Gov. Romney believes that states should be in charge of emergency management in responding to storms and other natural disasters in their jurisdictions," Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said in a statement to Politico. "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."
Is that spin of hurricane proportions or what? The campaign's description of FEMA sounds comfortably close to what FEMA already does. Moderate Mitt seems almost to have forgotten the right-wing-sounding Mitt from the primaries, a forgetfulness that President Obama lampoons as "Romnesia."
But it also is a description of FEMA functions that sounds uncomfortably close to the buck-passing agency that was nowhere to be seen for several days in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as thousands of homeless New Orleans residents begged for help on live television.
As Hurricane Sandy roared up the East Coast, Romney might also like to forget his praise of the cost-cutting budget proposed by his own running mate, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal Washington think tank, found that Ryan's proposed cuts in funding for non-defense discretionary programs like FEMA's disaster relief would be three times as deep as the widely dreaded 7.3 percent across-the-board cuts scheduled under sequestration, the automatic spending cuts ordered by the Budget Control Act that ended the 2011 debt-ceiling crisis.
I don't know how Romney handled disasters during his single term as governor, but Republican Gov. Chris Christie gave high praise to President Obama's response after Hurricane Sandy. After the storm left over 2.4 million people without power in his state, Christie said on NBC's "Today Show" that he had spoken with Obama several times and the federal response "has been great."
If Christie becomes a presidential candidate, as many people hope he will, I hope he remembers the practical lessons of governing a state in time a disaster. When people desperately need help from Washington, they don't want to hear about politics.
E-mail Clarence Page at cpage(at)tribune.com.(c) 2012 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.