Commentary: The politics of Hurricane Harvey

Some conservatives and Trump supporters are complaining about attempts to politicize Hurricane Harvey. They believe there's an effort to inject partisan politics into what should be a moment of unity on behalf of those suffering in the storm's wake. Where did they get this idea?

"It's important to politicize Hurricane Harvey."

That's the beginning of an opinion piece for CNN by Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, a world-renowned expert in the areas of sustainable development, climate change and poverty. Sachs has also been a persistent critic of corporate interests, and in this op-ed, he argues, among other things, that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott should resign as soon as the storm passes because Texas supports the oil and gas industry, rather than backing restrictions on carbon to fight global warming.

Political opportunism by climate-change activists is hardly unexpected, and there's been quite a bit of it. Obama adviser Ben Rhodes tweeted out on Tuesday "How will GOP explain to our kids that it failed to combat climate change or prepare for its impacts because it denied basic facts?" 

Nobody disputes that the debate over climate change issues is serious or worthwhile. But such blatant partisan attacks, even as the rain was still falling and rescuers were still saving the stranded could be off-putting. It's certainly not subtle, and it goes beyond climate change to questions about the competence of the response to Harvey.

"How Many Votes Could Hurricane Harvey Cost Trump In Texas?"  That Washington Post headline was so direct that it inspired the liberal magazine New Republic to urge restraint. Sort of.

"Yes, politicize Hurricane Harvey—just not like this," the magazine opined.

We may like to think that natural disasters cause political divisions to fall away, but the sad truth seems to be that partisanship can survive 15 trillion gallons of rain water and non-stop images of washed-out homes and overflowing shelters.

Democrats (and some Republicans like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie) are attacking Texas Republicans for opposing the Hurricane Sandy relief bill in 2013.  The Republicans who voted "no" argue that the bill included billions in non-Sandy-related spending (it did), but why have that debate before the storm has subsided?  The Sandy relief bill wasn't passed until two months after the storm hit. There will be plenty of time for the usual partisan bickering.

From the "unusual bickering" file comes a statement by the ACLU suggesting that the Trump administration was somehow using Hurricane Harvey to ensnare illegal immigrants. They attacked the Trump administration for not closing border checkpoints during the hurricane…despite the fact that none of these checkpoints were actually in the hurricane. (Not a lot of border crossings in the Gulf of Mexico.)

"The Border Patrol should never keep checkpoints open during any natural disasters in the United States," the ACLU said. "Everyone, no matter the color of their skin or background, is worth saving."

So they're suggesting that the Trump administration wouldn't save some people in a hurricane?

And then there were Melania's shoes…

US-POLITICS-TRUMP

US First Lady Melania Trump walks to board Marine One as she and her husband US President Donald Trump depart the White House in Washington, DC, on August 29, 2017, for Texas to view the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey. First Lady Melania Trump is making waves ... for her flood fashion. 

Nicholas Kamm / AFP/Getty Images

When the first lady boarded Air Force One with her husband for their trip to Texas, she wore stilettos — fairly common footwear for a former fashion model. The reaction was instantaneous:

"Melania Trump wore heels to flooded Texas," the Washington Post wrote. "She should have at least pretended to relate."

Journalist Jamil Smith responded with "It isn't that they [the Trumps] keep getting it wrong. They don't care about getting it right."

U.S. President Trump arrives in Corpus Christi, Texas

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump step off Air Force One prior to receiving a briefing on Tropical Storm Harvey relief efforts in Corpus Christi, Texas, U.S., August 29, 2017.

Carlos Barria / REUTERS

Some Trump supporters were puzzled by the idea of getting footwear "wrong." They noted that Melania was wearing sneakers when she arrived in Texas and, as the FLOTUS's spokeswoman put it "It's sad that we have an active and ongoing natural disaster in Texas and people are worried about…shoes."

Many Americans on both sides of the aisle would agree.

  • Michael Graham

    CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.