In recent months, the Republican presidential field hasn’t paid a whole of attention to the crisis in Flint, Michigan. In mid-January, with the national spotlight shining on the man-made disaster, Marco Rubio was asked for his perspective – and he had no idea what the reporter was talking about.
Six weeks later, the topic came up in last night’s debate, held in Detroit, where Fox News’ Bret Baier reminded the GOP candidates that Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton “have both been to Flint. They are both running ads in this state focusing on that, focusing on supporting Flint and fixing the problems, showing images of people in Flint thankful that they’re there.”
The co-moderator asked Rubio, “Without getting into the political blame game here, where are the national Republicans’ plans on infrastructure and solving problems like this? If you talk to people in this state, they are really concerned about Flint on both sides of the aisle. So why haven’t GOP candidates done more or talked more about this?”
The Florida senator’s response was one of the evening’s more unsettling answers. Here’s his answer in its entirety.
“Well, I know I’ve talked about it, and others in our campaign have talked about it, and other candidates have talked about it, as well. What happened in Flint was a terrible thing. It was systemic breakdown at every level of government, at both the federal and partially the – both the state and partially at the federal level, as well.“And by the way, the politicizing of it I think is unfair, because I don’t think that someone woke up one morning and said, ‘Let’s figure out how to poison the water system to hurt someone.’“But accountability is important. I will say, I give the governor credit. He took responsibility for what happened. And he’s talked about people being held accountable and the need for change, with Governor Snyder.“But here’s the point: This should not be a partisan issue. The way the Democrats have tried to turn this into a partisan issue, that somehow Republicans woke up in the morning and decided, ‘Oh, it’s a good idea to poison some kids with lead.’ It’s absurd. It’s outrageous. It isn’t true. All of us are outraged by what happened. And we should work together to solve it. And there is a proper role for the government to play at the federal level, in helping local communities to respond to a catastrophe of this kind, not just to deal with the people that have been impacted by it, but to ensure that something like this never happens again.”
Hmm. So, Flint was an accident; Rick Snyder deserves credit for his handling of the crisis; let’s be sure to blame the feds; and Democratic rhetoric is even more upsetting than the disaster itself. Got it.
New York’s Jon Chait wrote an important rejoinder: “Asked to avoid the blame game and offer specific solutions to urban-infrastructure problems, Rubio is unable. He conceives of the question entirely in partisan terms. He attacks the notion that Republicans consciously decided to poison children, thereby ruling out any possibility of government negligence as self-evidently preposterous. He has nothing resembling a specific idea on the issue, only the firm conviction that Republicans could not have done anything wrong.”
As unsettling as the debate exchange was, it offered real insights into how Rubio sees the world. Six weeks ago, the senator couldn’t be bothered to know what the Flint scandal was. Last night, he recognized the crisis, but only through an electoral prism. Rubio starts with the premise he finds ideologically satisfying – Republicans are correct and free of wrongdoing – and then works backwards … until he can find a way to condemn Democrats.
Rubio simply cannot stop thinking in partisan political terms. By all appearance, he doesn’t even know how. For all of the media’s assurances about Rubio being “whip smart,” the young senator simply lacks the wherewithal to consider policy questions in substantive ways.
The Republican was asked, “[W]here are the national Republicans’ plans on infrastructure and solving problems like this?” This prompts Rubio to reference the agreed-upon talking points; (1) Flint, sad; (2) Snyder, good; (3) Democrats, bad. The growing evidence of neglect, incompetence, and possibly criminal misdeeds surrounding the governor’s office? For Rubio, none of this matters.
The assembled audience applauded, but given the reality, they should have cringed.