Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Obama's Fuzzy Math and Sebelius' Dirty Politics

Maybe the strain of campaigning is getting to Senator Obama...
Barack Obama, caught up in the fervor of a campaign speech Tuesday, drastically overstated the Kansas tornadoes death toll, saying 10,000 had died. The death toll was 12.

"In case you missed it, this week, there was a tragedy in Kansas. Ten thousand people died - an entire town destroyed," the Democratic presidential candidate said in a speech to 500 people packed into a sweltering Richmond art studio for a fundraiser.

Obama mentioned the disaster in Greensburg, Kan., in saying he had been told by the office of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius that the state's National Guard had been depleted by its commitment to the Iraq War.

"Turns out that the National Guard in Kansas only had 40 percent of its equipment and they are having to slow down the recovery process in Kansas," Obama said, his shirt sleeves rolled up and his head glistening with sweat.

As the Illinois senator concluded his remarks a few minutes later, he appeared to realize his gaffe.

"There are going to be times when I get tired," he said. "There are going to be times when I get weary. There are going to be times when I make mistakes."

Obama spokesman Bill Burton said later that the senator meant to say "at least 10," instead of 10,000.

During his speech, Obama stirred the crowd as he often does by skewering President Bush over the unpopular war and noting that he opposed it from the outset.

"How could we have been involved in a war that never should have been authorized, that has already cost us half a trillion dollars," Obama said.
To be perfectly honest, I don't care that Obama misstated the number -- mistakes happen, although I'm convinced that if he had gone with 100 people, no one in the media would have pushed him on it. I'm also not going to get into the specifics of a campaign that parrots the Democrats' decision to push forth the "Iraq War was a mistake, so let's pull out" theme with absolutely no constructive explanation of how that helps the national security of the United States (to be fair, I think Biden and Richardson have tried to be more pro-active on this point).

No, the bigger story is Gov. Sebelius' claims that Kansas lacked equipment because of the Iraq War and the federal response to help in Greenburg was mismanaged. Denis Boyles explodes the idea in this article...
Greensburg was not a huge metropolis. Three thousand yards would have taken you from one end of town to the other, easily. So, using whatever was at hand, in a few hours the streets were open for emergency vehicles — which, in small-town parlance, means not only ambulances and fire trucks from other small towns, but also an armada of pick-ups, tractors, dozers, loaders, and heavy trucks owned by practically everyone within a 50-mile radius. After all, this is a part of the world where most people commute to work on a big machine that beeps when it goes backwards.

The next day, the state’s Republican U.S. Senator, Pat Roberts, along with two local congressmen, were on the scene, surveying the destruction and reporting back on what they were seeing. On Sunday evening, two full days after the disaster, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius made her appearance.

During that two-day period, two things happened that changed the story from one of small-town heroism to one about the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. In Greensburg, outside civilian help was kept out by emergency management teams — perhaps accounting for the “unmistakable emptiness in Greensburg, a lack of heavy machinery and an army of responders” reported this morning by the New York Times.

Kansas legislators started getting complaining phone calls from area residents and from people who wanted to help, but were being kept away, even as Sebelius was telling reporters, “As you travel around Greensburg, you’ll see the city and county trucks have been destroyed.” (Not that the village of Greensburg had a lot of trucks to begin with).

Melvin Neufeld, the Speaker of the Kansas house — and also a farmer from Ingalls, another small town about an hour northwest of Greensburg — explained what he thought accounted for that “unmistakable emptiness” reported by the Times: “We had people there, people who had been doing the work and other people who wanted to be included. That’s how we do things here. We don’t wait for the government. We just get the job done. But all those people were kept out.”

Now, one might argue that, despite the way Midwesterners have always successfully responded to these calamities in the past, there are acceptable, safety-inspired reasons for keeping civilians out of a civil-emergency area. Less certain is the reasoning behind the other thing that happened during that two-day period of “unmistakable emptiness.” While Roberts and the congressmen were on the scene, and while people were waiting to get back in to reclaim whatever they could of their broken lives, the governor’s office in Topeka was busy changing the story.

As the Topeka Capital-Journal’s Ric Anderson writes this morning, “Sebelius works without a carefully crafted game plan about as often as Ashton Kutcher finishes a novel. She’s calculating and cautious, which is a big part of why she’s won two terms as governor in a Republican state.” It took a couple of days, but finally Sebelius released a statement claiming that relief efforts in Greensburg were being hampered by the absence of state National Guard equipment. It had been taken to fight the war in Iraq.

... By Monday morning, the Greensburg story had a new hook, one that played much more comfortably in the national media. It wasn’t about those resilient Kansans, after all. It was about Bush and Iraq. When the A.M. talk shows went on the air, Sebelius was ready. “[Having Guard equipment in Iraq] is a huge issue,” she told Fox’s Steve Doocy. “We’re missing Humvees, frontloaders, and dumptrucks.” And, she added, she couldn’t ask for help from neighboring states, because their stuff was in Iraq, too. Her closer: “We need those assets back in the United States.”

... The press has run with this story, of course. The Katrina effect — exploiting a natural disaster for political gain — is irresistible, and for Harry Reid and anyone else who needs a good attack bite, Greensburg will do. By Tuesday, according to the AP, Barack Obama was blaming Bush and Iraq for the death of 10,000 people in Greensburg. Today, it’s on the front page of the New York Times, right where Sebelius apparently wanted it to be: “The emergency response was too slow,” the Times reports her saying, “and there was only one reason.”

But, say Kansans like Neufeld, there are troubling questions that should be asked. First, if the governor thought there was going to be a delay, or if she felt she needed more equipment, why didn’t she ask for it Saturday?

“All she had to do was ask,” the Defense Department’s Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke told me. “We can’t make that decision on our own and start imposing people and equipment on our own. The state has to ask.”

In addition to thousands of available Guard personnel, Krenke said, there’s enough heavy equipment available to Sebelius to turn tiny Greensburg into a heavy-equipment parking lot — including more than 350 Humvees, hundreds of trucks, tractors, trailers, and other pieces of heavy machinery — along with thousands more sitting parked in neighboring states.

“It’s all there,” Krenke said. “The equipment and people are available and a process is in place for getting it. But they haven’t chosen to use it.” The adjutant-general of the Kansas National Guard is working with Washington, Krenke said. “He should be advising her of all this.” The adjutant-general’s press officer didn’t respond to a request for a comment.

But the governor’s office did. Last night I asked, if equipment is the problem, and the equipment is there for the asking, how does the war in Iraq “slow down and hamper the recovery” effort in Greensburg? And why hadn’t the governor taken those two days to ask for help, if she thought she needed it? Her spokesman first disputed that she had meant Greensburg, specifically, but when pressed, he said simply, “We’ll get back to you.” An hour or so later, the governor’s office released a statement backing down a little. It wasn’t about getting help quickly to little Greensburg, after all.

... In Greensburg itself, a “slow” relief effort certainly isn’t quite what people are seeing. “I’m very impressed,” Deborah Factor, one of the few homeowners in Greensburg to still have a home, told me by phone yesterday. “There are Guardsmen everywhere — picking up, cleaning up, shoveling stuff. And there’s food everywhere. I have not found one single person from Greensburg with a complaint. We’re grieving our losses, but most of us are grateful for friends and family and glad to be alive.”

... I talked to several other area residents who were unsure why Sebelius had used Greensburg as an excuse to attack the White House. Two state employees spoke to me on condition of anonymity. “Our governor is using this incident to take cheap shots at the war in Iraq,” said one.

The other was more puzzled. “I don’t know why she didn’t ask for help if she needed it,” he said. “That’s her job, isn’t it?”
The whole article's worth the read. Someone should pass it to Senator Obama as well, if he's not too tired to read it.


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