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Dana Milbank: A perfect political storm

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New Jersey piled sandbags. Delaware fortified its dunes. New York evacuated parts of Lower Manhattan.

And Washington prepared for Hurricane Sandy with its own brand of emergency response: gaming out which candidate would benefit.

Would the tracking polls be skewed when storm victims failed to answer their phones?

Would storm coverage crowd out political ads in battleground states?

Would power outages keep people from receiving the campaigns’ messages?

Would Friday’s all-important jobs report be delayed because the Labor Department was closed?

“Just the frenzy around the forecast could disrupt this week’s early voting, which probably hurts President Obama,” Politico speculated. “But he also has an opportunity to be seen as president — a commander-in-chief moment.”

A good answer to all of these questions: Who knows?

An even better answer: Who cares?

It may be heresy to say so, just one week before a presidential election, but some things are bigger than politics.

The likely consequences of the hurricane would be millions without power, tens of millions unable to work or go to school, tens of thousands forced from their homes and lives inevitably lost. Certainly, the storm could alter the presidential contest; in a dead heat, almost anything could. But there is something ghoulish about finding political advantage in so much human misery.

The candidates did what they should have done: They suspended campaign appearances and appealed for contributions to the Red Cross. But the political industrial complex, already in motion for next Tuesday’s election, could not demobilize so quickly.

On the left, the Huffington Post posted a headline saying Mitt Romney wanted to “Shut Down Federal Disaster Agency.” This news bulletin, based on the candidate’s comments in a debate in June 2011, was picked up by other outlets on the left and provoked a response from the Romney campaign, which said the Republican nominee would not abolish FEMA.

On the right, the Drudge Report went with the headline “Most Expensive Pizza Delivery in History,” linking to a Washington Times report about Obama flying to Orlando on Sunday only to cancel his event and return to the White House on Monday morning before the storm’s full impact.

The conspiracy contingent, meantime, found material in a statement from the Labor Department, reported by The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and others, that possible changes to the release of Friday’s report on October employment would be announced “when the weather emergency is over.”

Breitbart.com saw political mischief in this “unprecedented move on the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s [sic] part.” The conservative Web site said a delay would be “absolutely outrageous and only further erode trust in our public institutions.”

A BLS spokesman, no doubt huddling in a dark basement with his computer on battery power, quickly clarified that the plan was still for a Friday report.

The Sunday-show roundtables switched seamlessly to meteorological punditry. NBC’s David Gregory identified Hurricane Sandy as the “October surprise.” CNN’s Candy Crowley quizzed David Axelrod on the political consequences of Virginia being “more or less paralyzed by weather.” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos grilled Stephanie Cutter on the same.

“The storm will throw havoc into the race,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) disclosed to Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.” He noted the cancellation of Obama’s Virginia rally on Monday.

It took Sen. John McCain, of all people, to be the voice of calm, when CBS’s Bob Schieffer asked “who gets hurt the most” by the storm.

“I’m not sure it will affect votes,” the Arizona Republican speculated sagely.

There were limitless political possibilities to consider. The Huffington Post ran an exclusive about how the hurricane could disrupt pollsters’ “ability to conduct interviews or to reach the millions of Americans who may soon be without electricity or telephone service” — thus playing havoc with the tracking polls. Writing for washingtonpost.com, Democratic strategist Carter Eskew predicted that the storm damage might make it “hard” for Obama “to be at rallies in Iowa or Colorado.”

Nobody did more hurricane war-gaming than Politico, which examined every possible political permutation: It could help Obama in Virginia and Ohio; it could hurt Obama in Virginia and Ohio; it could blunt the impact of political ads; it could magnify the impact of political ads; it could make Obama look presidential; it could magnify any Obama mistake; it could stop Romney’s momentum; it could complicate Obama’s “ground game”; it could help New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s 2016 presidential bid.

In other words: Nobody had any idea.

danamilbank@washpost.com

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