People laughed at Jeb Bush for his ludicrous comment in a September debate that his brother “kept us safe” while president. Most snickered that Jeb was ignoring thousands of dead from the September 11 attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hurricane Katrina. But George W. Bush’s policies of neglect affected far more than that. How many died between 2001 and 2009 from lacking access to medical treatment; from exposure to harmful chemicals or pollution in the atmosphere; from unregulated corporate harm; from persistent, grinding poverty?
This disconnect raises a fundamental issue for Republicans. They profess to believe that the primary responsibility of the president is to keep Americans safe. But they aren’t actually interested in safety. They misalign the risks to Americans and put their energies toward the most remote threats, while ignoring the real threats people face. And Marco Rubio offered the perfect example of this on Monday.
A reporter in Coralville, Iowa, asked the senator to comment on Democratic calls for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, to resign over his handling of the water crisis in Flint, which has poisoned tens of thousands of Americans. Rubio replied, “I didn’t watch the debate so I have no idea what they said.” The reporter asked him to comment more generally on Flint, where President Obama has declared a state of emergency. “That’s not an issue that right now we’ve been focused on,” Rubio said, sprinkling in some boilerplate about the federal government’s role. “I’d love to give you a better answer on it, it’s just not an issue we’ve been quite frankly fully briefed or apprised of.”
This is a man whose presidential campaign is largely predicated on threats to the homeland from outside. Rubio told Face the Nation that he bought a gun to protect his family from Islamic State militants. But he couldn’t be bothered to bone up on a direct threat to an entire American city from within—the deliberate poisoning of Flint’s water supply.
Let me give Senator Rubio a refresher course. Michigan officials, who commandeered control of Flint’s local government through a disenfranchising emergency-manager process that suspiciously lines up with the main concentrations of African-Americans in the state, decided to temporarily use water from the Flint River for residential consumption while awaiting a new pipeline to Lake Huron. This was done to save money—to balance Flint’s budget, much like the persistent calls from Rubio and his Republican allies with respect to the federal budget.
The water from the Flint River was dirty, unfit for drinking or washing, and it corroded the lead-based service lines distributing water to 99,000 citizens. Residents immediately complained about the foul-smelling, bad-tasting water. It turned out the entire city suffered lead poisoning, as research demonstrated, for well over a year, with toxicity levels 13,000 times above a safe reading. The emergency manager in Flint, state environmental officials (who failed to properly treat the water), and Governor Snyder ignored this as long as they could, even withholding information from the public.
It took 18 months for Michigan to switch back the water to Lake Huron, despite a succession of votes from Flint’s elected officials to stop the poisoning, all of which the emergency manager overrode. Even after the switch, the lead pipes delivering the water remain damaged, and the public-health effects that will linger for decades remain unknown. The National Guard has been sent in to distribute bottled water and filtration. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette plans to investigate, as does the Department of Justice.
None of this is worth knowing about, according to Marco Rubio. He can’t be bothered with the mass contamination of an American city—not when the public is potentially, hypothetically unsafe from ISIS! Never mind the fact that you’re more likely to be hit by lightning or crushed by furniture than killed in a terrorist attack.
Indeed, as the Flint crisis shows, you are far more likely to be killed as a result of conservative austerity and deregulatory policies. Not only are they self-defeating when it comes to infrastructure—Michigan has already paid far more for the Flint disaster than it ever saved from temporarily re-routing the city’s water supply—but basing policy priorities on cost-cutting rather than human need inevitably leads to choosing winners and losers, and not in a benign way.
When you cannot be bothered to ensure that the sick can access health care, people die. When you cannot be bothered to stop corporations from polluting the earth, people die. When you cannot be bothered to monitor workplaces for the hazardous practices under which their employees operate, people die. When you cannot be bothered to protect citizens from a law enforcement apparatus charged with protecting them, people die.
But we rarely hear about these aspects of keeping Americans safe until a crisis like Flint emerges. The ongoing notion of safety in politics, absent something headline-grabbing like poisoning an entire city, is relegated to the foreign-policy sphere. And playing up threats from abroad, often of dubious relevance, numbs the nation to the numerous other ways in which Americans are put in peril every day. And of course, there are fewer special interests clamoring to protect water supplies and workplaces than there are defense contractors wanting to go to war against a foreign threat.
Indeed, one political party considers these concepts of safety to be so insignificant that they won’t even contemplate them. It’s not just Rubio: Donald Trump yesterday told reporters that what’s happening in Flint is “a shame,” but added, “I don’t want to comment on that.” No 2016 GOP hopeful has released a single statement on the water crisis. (On Tuesday, Ben Carson did offer his thoughts on Flint in an interview with the Huffington Post, but only to blame local leaders and the EPA.)
Obviously, the role of Michigan’s Republican governor is causing some reticence among conservatives. But Rubio’s pathetic claim that the Flint crisis is a nondescript state issue reveals his weakness on this. Hillary Clinton, in sharp contrast, sent staffers to Flint, demanded that Michigan pay for clean water delivery, and proposed a federal health monitoring system. Bernie Sanders called for Snyder’s resignation. And President Obama freed up emergency resources as soon as Snyder belatedly requested it. The federal government has a clear role to play, not just providing funds but also accountability.
It flatters people’s ideological beliefs to see this as only an issue for the poor and the vulnerable. In Sunday’s debate, Clinton said, “If the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would’ve been action.” But I’ve been to Porter Ranch, an upper-middle class community in Los Angeles (many of the developments are gated) where methane gas has leaked from a storage facility for more than three months, and officials (including the Democratic governor and his regulatory agencies) have been similarly slow to respond.
Underfunded regulatory agencies and corporate cost-cutting caused the Porter Ranch crisis, as surely as government austerity and regulatory failure caused the tragedy in Flint. We all are put at risk every day by a policy apparatus that shunts human needs to the background. While tough-guy politicians speak darkly of bombs and soldiers in the name of “keeping people safe,” they leave no room for real public safety threats. They don’t even have the time to be briefed about them.
This article has been updated.