Column: Playing politics with crisis is inevitable

Monday - 4/29/2013, 3:10pm EDT

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Hours after the Boston Marathon bombings, President Barack Obama gave the standard presidential line following a tragedy: "On days like this there are no Republicans or Democrats -- we are Americans, united in concern for our fellow citizens."

And, as usual, Republicans and Democrats alike quickly ignored his don't-politicize-this plea.

This was inevitable.

Our leaders always play politics after catastrophe, whether made by man or Mother Nature. The Newtown shootings and Superstorm Sandy. The financial crisis and Hurricane Katrina. Our history is filled with moments when something big happens and elected officials maneuver quickly to take advantage of the changing public mindset -- or at least the more intense media spotlight -- on a specific issue.

Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress leveraged public angst over the Depression and a worldwide war in the 1930s to enact the New Deal, overhauling financial systems, funding public works projects and creating Social Security. Some three decades later, Lyndon B. Johnson and his Democrats seized on social unrest to pass the Great Society, anti-poverty and civil rights measures, education and transportation initiatives, Medicare and Medicaid.

During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and his GOP used the moment of sky-high inflation and a growing Soviet threat to win support for boosting the military, trimming government and cutting taxes. And, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Republican George W. Bush rallied a fearful America behind expanding the government's terrorist-tracking powers, streamlining intelligence gathering and toppling Saddam Hussein.

Most recently, when he took office amid the worst economic conditions in a generation, Obama saw an opportunity to advance an audacious agenda that included ending the costly war in Iraq, improving crumbling transportation arteries and overhauling the health care system. As his first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was fond of saying back then: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."

A gray area exists in all cases.

To some people, politicians who press for new legislation after a tragedy are seizing the perfect time to make needed changes, using typically fleeting we-are-one moments to reach consensus on an issue that long had been languishing behind more pressing priorities or struggling to get the necessary votes. To other people, these politicians are exploiting a tragedy in a blatant attempt to enact their pet, partisan policies.

These days, Republicans and Democrats alike accuse each other of politicizing tragedy -- even as they do the same. And, in this season of political gridlock, both parties typically use such moments to dig in on their polarizing positions, rally their core supporters and pressure the public to see it their respective ways.

In doing so, they waste opportunities to find common ground to address a problem that a calamity illuminated, like the failed effort by a bipartisan group of senators to close gun law loopholes in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut. They couldn't persuade enough lawmakers to buck their core backers and campaign donors in the name of compromise.

And when today's lawmakers do find solutions in the midst of crisis, those accords usually are forged at the last minute and only after intense partisan wrangling, such as when the country was about to head over the so-called "fiscal cliff" of automatic tax increases and budget cuts.

Blame the far wings of the political parties that control the system; blame a media that feeds on conflict; blame special interests that threaten to work to fire lawmakers who capitulate.

And, to some extent, blame the reactive nature of Congress. It doesn't do a good job anticipating problems, and rather appears to be in a constant crisis management mode, dealing with the biggest issues only when they demand the most attention -- and making them catnip for partisans looking to push their pet positions just when public opinion is changing.

This has been the case in the seemingly never-ending cycle of fiscal emergencies recently.

Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader from South Dakota, sees parallels between Congress and a fire department that responds to five-alarm blazes but doesn't focus enough on prevention, saying, "We're responding to the fires because, partly, that's where the media is, that's where the people are demanding that we respond to these things."

He says it's difficult to reach common ground proactively, adding: "It may even be impossible in some cases because they don't have the pressure to reach that consensus. So you often times kick around ideas but never really get to a critical tipping point to bring about the change required."