Faint GOP interest in Flint’s pain is a mistake, party members say

Louis Singleton receives water filters, bottled water and a test kit from the Michigan National Guard. (Photo: Paul Sancya/AP)

A number of Republican operatives and allies Friday lamented that the GOP has largely been ignoring the water crisis in Flint and warned that it sends a terrible message to the nation. 

“This is an amoral display of political apathy by Republican leaders. Their failure to run to the crisis, roll up their sleeves and pitch in tells the world that we are still the same old Republicans who only care about those who would vote for or contribute to them,” said Alex Castellanos, a political operative who is not working for any of the Republican presidential contenders.

Castellanos said he agreed with an op-ed in the New York Times Thursday written by former White House speechwriter Matt Latimer, who worked for President George W. Bush.

Latimer, a Flint native, wrote that the water crisis was “the Republicans’ chance to show their worth,” and to demonstrate that party leaders who have tried to refocus the GOP on poverty, like House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, mean what they say.

Why aren’t Republican presidential candidates, he asked, “shipping in water bottles and holding fund-raisers for kids now condemned to lowered expectations because their brains were poisoned by lead?”

To be fair, none of the Democratic presidential candidates have done any of those things either. And Republican candidates have not been entirely silent on the issue. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson issued a lengthy statement on the crisis, saying that the citizens of Flint “deserve better – from both their local and federal officials.”

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas called it “a failure at every level of government.” His state director wrote on Facebook that campaign volunteers were bringing fresh water to pro-life pregnancy centers in the city, which counsel women against having abortions. And former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has talked about the matter in a town hall meeting this week in New Hampshire, a spokesman said. No news coverage of Bush’s remarks has yet surfaced online.

But overall, Republicans have been quieter about Flint than Democrats have. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been the most active on the issue among Democratic presidential candidates, repeatedly raising the issue to call for action from state and federal officials, and calling Flint Mayor Karen Weaver to find out what the city needs. Sen. Bernie Sanders has called for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, to resign.

Many Republicans resent what they see as crass political opportunism by the Democrats. 

“[Snyder] was given bad information. Not from Republicans or Democrats but from civil servants, at both the state and federal level,” said Katie Packer, who helped run Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, and is a Michigan native. “When he realized the problem he acted swiftly to fix it, with local and federal help.”

“This is not a partisan problem,” she said. 

But in contrast to the Democrats, businessman Donald Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich both were asked by reporters about the issue, and gave sparing replies. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said he hadn’t been briefed on it and added: “That’s not an issue that right now we’ve been focused on.” Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who actually campaigned in Flint over the summer and has been the one Republican candidate to consistently visit African-American communities, has not spoken out on Flint’s water crisis.

It’s not surprising that each candidate’s brain power and energy, and that of their campaign staffs, is primarily focused on how to win the Iowa caucuses in just over a week on Feb. 1. 

But Latimer’s deeper point is that for Democrats like Clinton, it’s second nature for them to comment forcefully on a situation where poor Americans in a majority African-American city are the victim of a man-made catastrophe like the one in Flint.

“Every single American should be outraged,” Clinton said at last Sunday’s Democratic debate. She noted that the city was predominantly African-American and said, “I’ll tell you what, 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 the inclination to speak up in the face of crises faced by poor people and racial minorities is not second-nature for many Republican politicians. And so even if demands for Republicans to visit Flint days before the Iowa caucuses are unrealistic, it’s the willingness to speak out on behalf of disadvantaged people that Latimer is pinpointing.

“It’s outrageous Republicans and conservatives have not talked about the tragedy and importance of the matter,” said Juleanna Glover, a veteran Republican political operative who is supporting Bush.

Bob Woodson, an anti-poverty activist who has introduced House Speaker Ryan to community organizers and nonprofit programs in poor areas around the country, said that too many politicians “only look at people in terms of a narrow well-polled demographic.”

“But many of the people I know have experienced brokenness in their lives, and if you look at people in a broader context, they want candidates who understand that,” Woodson said.

Yet one senior adviser to a presidential candidate, who agreed to discuss his thinking on the Flint matter if his candidate’s name were withheld, said he sees the Flint water poisoning as “a long and complicated discussion that doesn’t lend itself to a GOP debate or the frenzied run up to an Iowa caucus.”

“I don’t fully understand it yet, though I plan to. Who is to blame. State EPA? Federal EPA? City managers? State government?” the adviser said. “It might be a place to say, ‘Ok, we want to help,’ but you have to really want to find out what failed and why.”

But Castellanos said the GOP can’t afford the luxury of waiting to find out the facts before at least expressing empathy and outrage over what is known unequivocally. Whoever is ultimately to blame, Flint’s children have been poisoned, with life-threatening and life-altering effects.

Castellanos said GOP reluctance to speak forcefully “is a tragic display that the Republican party still doesn’t get it.”

“[American Enterprise Institute President] Arthur Brooks has explained it with clarity: the party that is for people will always beat by the party that is against things,” Castellanos said. “Yet, at moments like this in Flint, when the country’s attention is focused on another Katrina, we find a way to tell people that we are not the party that is for people.”

“Maybe that should be the GOP motto:  ‘Love your contributors and neighbors as yourself and screw everybody else,’” he said.