David Frum

10.29.12

Romney and FEMA: Read Between the Lines

Mitt Romney's taking some heat today for this primary-season exchange in which he appears to endorse returning FEMA's functions to the states.

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Watch without prejudice, though, and you realize: that's not what he said. Instead, he evaded a question from CNN's John KIng about FEMA by offering an answer that generically endorsed federalism without committing Romney on FEMA either one way or the other.

It's a familiar politician's trick. For another example, see this exchange between President Obama and Bob Schieffer in the third presidential debate:

SCHIEFFER: …would either of you be willing to declare that an attack on Israel is an attack on the United States, which, of course, is the same promise that we give to our close allies like Japan?…

OBAMA: First of all, Israel is a true friend. It is our greatest ally in the region. And if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel. I've made that clear throughout my presidency. And...

SCHIEFFER: So you're - you're saying we've already made that declaration.

OBAMA: I will stand with Israel if they are attacked. And this is the reason why, working with Israel, we have created the strongest military and intelligence cooperation between our two countries in history.

That answer certainly sounds like a "yes." But it's not a yes. It's a maybe. "Standing with" a country is not the same thing as defending it. Obama's caution is understandable, he does not wish to make an open-ended security commitment on a campaign stage. Romney's caution was surely understandable too. He did not want to tell a roomful of hard partisans that their ideology is unworkable. But neither, really, does he intend to shutter FEMA.