The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Memo to the Republican candidates: The Flint water crisis matters. Read up on it.

Take a look at the key moments that led up to Flint, a city of 90,000, getting stuck with contaminated water. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)
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Thursday night's Republican debate was Trump-free. And the candidates knew this going in. So, quite frankly, they all should have come just a little bit more prepared on substance and less richly armed with the kind of zingers one needs handy when Donald Trump is on stage.

Instead, what we got were several moments in which the debate moderators seemed to interrupt standing naps — a technique that retired pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson may have perfected during all those years of answering "2 a.m. phone calls."

Now-stale segments of candidate stump speeches took up valuable time. There was also some back and forth about who and when different candidates favored "amnesty."

We did, however, get one of those very awkward-yet-telling moments in which it seemed that one of the candidates on stage very clearly needed to brush up on what's happening in the 49 other states where he hasn't served as governor or senator.

That moment served as a clear reminder of how little the Republican contenders have really said about a range of pressing domestic issues, including the Flint water crisis. And they have now participated in seven primary season debates.

On Thursday night, Ohio Gov. John Kasich took a question on the Flint water crisis — an issue only in the news just about every day of the last two weeks, and seemed able only to, well, vamp. Then, he vamped a little more. Just take a look at this exchange between Fox News's Bret Baier and Kasich, pulled straight from the debate transcript:

BAIER: Governor Kasich, you're one of two remaining sitting governors still in the race. Your colleague, Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan, is under fire — he and his administration —for the Flint, Michigan, water crisis and the botched response to it. How would you have handled that?
KASICH: Well, you've got to be on top of it right away. And, you know, I don't know all the details of what Rick Snyder has done. I know there have been people who have been fired, people who are being held accountable. But the fact is, every single engine of government has to move when you see a crisis like that.
And I've had many situations in the state of Ohio where we've had to move — whether it's storms, whether it was a horrible school shooting. There are many crises that come — a water crisis in Toledo. You've got to be on top of it. You've got to go the extra mile. You've got to work with local communities, and you've got to work with the federal government.
Because you realize that people are depending on you. And so, you go the extra mile. But people have to be alert. They have to be alert to problems. And when you see a problem, you must act quickly to get on top of it. And people at home are saying they've got a problem, listen to them. Because most of the time, they're absolutely correct.
So the fact is that we work for the people. The people don't work for us. And we have to have an attitude when we're in government of serving-hood. That's what really matters. We serve you. You don't serve us. We listen to you and — and then we act.

Note that Kasich failed to express a single idea or detail specific to the situation in Flint until almost the very end of his comments. And even that — the advice to listen to people when they say they have a problem — was arguably pretty applicable to all government officials, all citizens and all states.

Listen, running for president is hard. No doubt. It's hard on the body and probably quite hard on the mind. And there probably was all manner of information spinning in the mind of every man on that debate stage. There's the stuff they have read, the stuff they have seen, the stuff voters have mentioned and the stuff that campaign staff and consultants have tried to stuff in.

But running for president is a choice — an all-volunteer struggle. And what's happening in Flint represents a man-made tragedy of epic scale. It carries with it hard to fully comprehend financial and human costs.

There are more than 8,000 children in that city of roughly 99,000 people whose brains, impulse control and learning ability may have been permanently damaged by lead in Flint's drinking water. Their lives, their futures and those of their families and probably the entire town have been forever changed. This is the sort of situation that should have anyone promising to "solve problems" — as Kasich said during his closing debate remarks — transfixed.

The controversial case over dangerous lead in water in a Michigan city

Flint resident Angela Hickmon, 56, chants during a protest outside City Hall in downtown Flint, Mich., Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. Michigan's attorney general named a former prosecutor on Monday to spearhead an investigation into the process that left Flint's drinking water tainted with lead, though Democrats questioned whether the special counsel would be impartial. (Jake May/The Flint via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT (Jake May/AP)

In truth, Kasich was really just the guy on the debate stage who happened to draw the Flint question. Off-stage, in the days leading up to the debate, others demonstrated a utter absence of knowledge of events in Flint, too. Some candidates just seemed far more interested in the politics and political gamesmanship around the situation than the health crisis at hand.

On Jan. 24, while making the rounds on a few Sunday shows, former Florida governor Jeb Bush spent most of the time responding to questions about Flint with praise for Snyder, the embattled Republican governor of Michigan.

On Jan. 19, Carson, whose medical career centered on children's brains and who has family ties to Michigan, expressed ideas that revealed detailed knowledge of the situation in Flint and how the lead got into the drinking water.

But he also curiously blamed Flint's powerless city government and federal environmental regulators for the problem while making no mention at all of the state environmental officials Snyder has himself said ignored federal warnings.

Snyder has also said publicly that blame belongs with every level of government. And the EPA is not blameless, as the timing of those warnings was indisputably slow and, early on, the warnings were also unofficial. But there is real reason to focus on state officials, too, since they were the parties insisting that the water was safe, ignoring those warnings about the need for corrosion-control additives and the proper way to test tap water for lead content.

Also on Jan. 19, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had only this to say:

It’s just not an issue we’ve been quite frankly fully briefed or apprised of in terms of the role the governor has played and the state has played in Michigan on these sorts of issues. ... [I]n general, I believe the federal government’s role in some of these things [is] largely limited unless it involves a federal jurisdictional issue.

Trump pretty much said the same thing. He described the situation as "a shame," but followed by telling reporters that he "shouldn't be commenting on Flint." Who knew there was an issue about which Trump feels that he should not comment?

In fact, the Flint water crisis would seem to be the issue on which only Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was fully informed and, therefore, may have actually wanted to speak about on the debate stage.

By Jan. 19, it seemed Cruz had both the basic facts and the depth of the humanitarian crisis in mind. This is what he said:

It is a failure at every level of government, a failure of the city officials, a failure of the county officials, and the men and women of Michigan have been betrayed. ... Every American is entitled to have access to clean water, and to all the children who have been poisoned by government officials, by their negligence, by their ineptitude, it’s heartbreaking.