For New Yorkers, hurricanes are disastrous events that happen somewhere else, way down south, far from the towering spires of the nation’s financial capital.
There was always an unspoken touch of condescension as the masters of the universe watched the poor souls in Florida or Louisiana grappling with storm damage, or snickered as Washington was virtually shut down by heavy rains. New Yorkers are tough, they push their way onto crowded subways, and they don’t take nothin’ from nobody.
So it is nothing short of astonishing to watch the crippling blow that Hurricane Sandy has delivered to the city and New Jersey—the loss of power in lower Manhattan, the halting of subway service, the shuttering of the stock exchange, the flooding of beach towns. In terms of media coverage, at least, the metropolitan area was ground zero—and literally so, in that there was flooding at the still-unfinished One World Trade Center.
The more that New York and New Jersey are the story, the more Washington has been eclipsed. It’s not just that the nation’s capital survived the storm without massive blackouts, but that its business is politics, which for the moment seems like a beached whale.
President Obama canceled his campaign events for Tuesday and Wednesday, preferring the role of chief emergency coordinator. Rather than stumping in Ohio, the president is going to New Jersey to inspect the hurricane damage and meet with affected residents, a decision that makes strategic sense on several levels.
First, for all the media focus on Manhattan, New Jersey is the hardest-hit state, so Obama can go there without appearing to play politics.
Second, he gets to hang with Chris Christie, who happens to be one of Mitt Romney’s most visible surrogates. The New Jersey governor praised Obama’s handling of the storm after the president called him, so this is like picking off a star player from the other team and getting him on your squad, at least temporarily. Every day that Christie is rhetorically hugging Obama is a day when he’s not making the case for Romney. Christie went even further in an interview on Fox and Friends Tuesday morning, professing little interest when told Romney might visit to tour some of the damage in his state. “I have no idea” [if Romney is coming], “nor am I the least bit concerned or interested,” Christie said. “I have a job to do in New Jersey that is much bigger than presidential politics.”
Finally, Obama will appear bipartisan as he assumes a take-charge role, the sort of thing that could appeal to the dwindling band of independent voters.
On Tuesday he visited the American Red Cross in Washington, promising a strong government response: “No bureaucracy. No red tape.”
Romney made a low-key appearance Tuesday in Kettering, Ohio, where volunteers were bringing canned goods and clothing for hurricane victims. Romney made some encouraging remarks and steered clear of politics, a sensible course under the circumstances. The former Massachusetts governor ignored shouted questions from the press about whether he would eliminate FEMA, given his remarks at a debate last year that states should take the lead on disaster relief.
In a larger sense, Romney faces a difficult dilemma: how does he remain part of the national dialogue during these crucial days when he has no role in the hurricane response?
Behind the scenes, of course, the campaign has not exactly ground to a halt. The Republican National Committee blasted out an e-mail saying neither side has an advantage in early voting, contrary to reports that Democrats are piling up an advantage in states that allow such ballots. The Obama camp countered with its own release claiming strong African-American turnout in early voting. Both sides are still churning out television ads.
But the constant television footage of a flooded Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and a stranded water tanker on Staten Island has seemed to wash over the political realm. The politicians who are getting a political pop from the hurricane are Christie and Mike Bloomberg, with their endless news conferences on storm damage.
The days when every media outlet was obsessing over the latest poll from Ohio, Florida, or Virginia have suddenly receded. Gallup has suspended its daily tracking poll. If you judge by what’s on the screen, towns like Asbury Park and Atlantic City are suddenly more newsworthy than such swing-state areas as Des Moines and Columbus.
And that is true on other screens as well. Sandy is dominating the conversations on Twitter, with political chatter taking a back seat.
The lesson of this week is that politics doesn’t always take center stage, even in the final week of a presidential campaign. And the truth is that beyond the considerable death and destruction, one of Sandy’s silver linings has been a sense of the country coming together in time of tragedy. The harsh partisan tone that had enveloped the White House race was silenced, however briefly. The campaign has all too often seemed small, and the hurricane served as a reminder that there are larger things that bind us.