“Any landing you walk away from is a good one.” – pilots’ adage.
In the aftermath of the November 6th elections, Republicans are asking themselves what went wrong. Democrats don’t seem to be going through such an evaluation…at least not to the same degree. [Perhaps they shouldn’t be so complacent.] It’s instructive to observe how both political parties are going about any soul-searching, and to compare their self-examination with (1) current public critiques of the Hurricane Sandy emergency response and recovery process, and (2) the way the National Transportation Safety Board investigates aviation accidents.
Let’s dig a little deeper.
Republican leaders are offering views right and left on the reasons for losing the White House for another four years despite the country’s economic woes, which have led them to be optimistic for months if not years that they would regain the presidency. Republican-leaning columnists these days are also weighing in.
Some offer an act-of-God view. They blame Romney’s loss on the uptick in the economic indicators over recent months (as if that were a bad thing), the nature and extent of Hurricane Sandy’s damage, and the timing of that disaster, coming just one week before the vote. If Sandy hadn’t happened, or Governor Christie had maintained party discipline over the interests of the people in his state, then Romney wouldn’t have lost…
According to this narrative, Governor Romney, like residents along the Jersey shore and Staten Island, was a tragic victim of events beyond anyone’s power to foresee.
Sandy’s destruction was indeed tragic. The loss of life was far too great. The loss of home and place and those things that make life worth living for many residents – also far too great. But experts and leaders…and the public…have seen this day of reckoning coming. The transformation of Sandy from a storm to a disaster was not some freakish suspension of nature’s rules. Instead it followed, inevitably, myriad human decisions made at an individual and institutional level day-in and day-out over decades and even centuries that have built up the vulnerability and the risk. Undisciplined land use. Lax building codes. Failure to protect critical infrastructure. [Note that these decisions and actions were not taken in bad faith. In virtually every instance, all the parties went home at night thinking something like, This was a pretty good day. We got must of what we wanted or needed or knew to be in the public’s best long-term interest. We only had to compromise a little bit, around the edges. But it’s precisely that little bit of vulnerability added day after day over decades that creates the bow wave of destruction down the road.]
By contrast, commercial aviation and the National Transportation Safety Board owe their improving safety record over the years to attributing nothing to an Act-of-God. Bad weather? Icing on the aircraft wings? Jet engines shut down when they ingested hail or a volcanic ash plume? Low-altitude wind shear? Don’t fly into such weather. Detect it. Avoid it.
Some political commentators have focused on shortcomings in candidate Romney himself. They say he wasn’t truly conservative, or conversely, that he didn’t reach out to moderates. They say he flip-flopped. They found him unlikeable. They cited gaffes such as the 47% video; instituting “Romney-care” while governor of Massachusetts; outsourcing jobs while at Bain; and failing to shake his “insensitive rich-guy” image. They criticized Romney for “letting Obama define him.” Others have focused on the campaign. They note that the ground game – the business of getting out the votes on election day itself – was inadequate, etc.
Compare with Hurricane Sandy. In a similar way, each evening’s newscasts these days feature interviews with some of the 100,000 or so Hurricane Sandy survivors who are still waiting for restoration of their electrical power or some other vital service. Victims and newscasters alike tend to blame FEMA, state agencies, and the utilities for not getting enough work crews out in the affected area.
Both these cases are analogous to blaming a plane crash on pilot error. In the case of that accident, the pilot isn’t usually alive to offer a self-defense. And often investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board do conclude on the basis of those black-box recorders and other evidence that pilot actions were a contributory cause. But – in most cases – only contributory. Once the wing falls off the plane, or the stabilizer “freezes,” or the landing gear don’t come down, or the engine catches fire, the pilot quickly runs out of time and options. In the same way, once the power lines have been compromised, once the floodwaters have surged inland, inundating homes and covering the streets with several feet of sand, emergency managers are themselves overwhelmed.
By and large, however, mainstream Republican political analysts have taken a step back, and looked at a broader picture. They have identified areas where the GOP as a whole might have opportunities for improvement…to recognize and respond to major U.S. demographic trends…to make a better appeal to women (especially single women), to reach out to minorities, to deal with immigration, to build a more credible, positive narrative on the economic fix, etc. All these topics are in play in a way they weren’t a month ago. Analysts and party leaders are thinking realistically, soberly about the actions they must take – including how they help govern at the national level over the next four years – if they want the Republican Party to remain relevant and competitive.
Something similar is only now beginning to happen in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. To date the emphasis in coverage has been on fault-finding with the emergency response and the recovery. But it is now starting to shift toward examination of those factors that must be addressed to prevent recurrence of the disaster in future years: land use, building codes, better protection of critical infrastructure such as electrical power and subways. This is a welcome start. It needs to be followed through to its conclusion. And it should acknowledge the elephant in the room: we have to do a better job of protecting the heart and soul of America’s financial sector. We can’t continue letting weather roll the dice. Either we find some way to geographically disperse the industry, and thereby reduce its vulnerability to single-point failure, or we have to protect Manhattan against storm surge – to the extent of massive engineering works along the line of those expensive measures undertaken by the Dutch at their coastline and by the British downstream from London on the River Thames.
Such analysis and action is business-as-usual for commercial aviation. All parties use the NTSB as an instrument to help them sort through better design of aircraft; improved construction; more conservation maintenance and operation; better training of pilots and crew; and much more. They’ve routinized such studies. By contrast, each dissection of an election or a natural hazard is a new adventure, with neophytes making up the rules as they go along.
Oh, and to circle back to those Democrats, who aren’t doing that much soul-searching, perhaps they ought to take a page from the NTSB playbook as well. You see, the NTSB doesn’t just study fatal crashes; it also studies near-misses, looking for lessons.
Democrats certainly have much to learn from 2012. They might ask, how could they have done better? What could they have done over the past two to four years so that they’d have earned the trust and approval of more Americans? Could they have done more than simply retain the presidency? Perhaps they could have regained control of the House of Representatives.
Coming months will show us the extent to which our political leaders, and our country, are learning from experience.