Fact Check: Mitt Romney Never Called FEMA Immoral

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Mitt Romney

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the left is taking great pains to push the meme that Mitt Romney has said FEMA is “immoral.” The lie was started last year by left institution Think Progress and recently picked up on by (former Think Progress blogger and now Slate contributor) Matthew Yglesias, as well as last night's predictable New York Times editorial extolling the virtues of big government.

Where did anyone ever get the idea that Romney said FEMA was immoral?

For starters, that’s what Think Progress told the left to say. The headline of the piece was “Mitt Romney: Federal Disaster Relief For Tornado And Flood Victims Is ‘Immoral,’ ‘Makes No Sense At All,’” and if the stats on the Think Progress website are to be believed, that article had over 3,500 retweets and 39,000 Facebook likes. This is exactly how the institutional left sets the stage for the left blogosphere and mainstream media to create a false narrative.

The reality of what Mitt Romney actually said is quite different. Back in June, 2011 during the Republican Primary debates, Romney had the following exchange with CNN’s John King.

KING: Governor Romney? You’ve been a chief executive of a state. I was just in Joplin, Missouri. I’ve been in Mississippi and Louisiana and Tennessee and other communities dealing with whether it’s the tornadoes, the flooding, and worse. FEMA is about to run out of money, and there are some people who say do it on a case-by-case basis and some people who say, you know, maybe we’re learning a lesson here that the states should take on more of this role. How do you deal with something like that?

ROMNEY: Absolutely. Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.

Instead of thinking in the federal budget, what we should cut — we should ask ourselves the opposite question. What should we keep? We should take all of what we’re doing at the federal level and say, what are the things we’re doing that we don’t have to do? And those things we’ve got to stop doing, because we’re borrowing $1.6 trillion more this year than we’re taking in. We cannot…

KING: Including disaster relief, though?

ROMNEY: We cannot — we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids. It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we’ll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.

There’s only one honest way to parse this exchange: Mitt Romney thinks that deficit spending is immoral. 

Romney’s answer was somewhat inelegant, because he used the same tactic many politicians do in debates; he took an opportunity to tap dance away from the question he was actually asked in order to make a rehearsed talking point. Rather than get into the specifics of FEMA, he wanted to talk about deficit spending, and so he did. 

Mitt Romney is guilty of using a common rhetorical technique amongst politicians. What he did not say -- not one time -- is that FEMA itself is immoral. Nor did he say that he would completely eliminate FEMA. He laid out a general principle of conservative governance: that most things are best handled by the states or better yet the private sector.

Attempts to paint Romney as an ultra small government conservative who would slash every government program imaginable fall flat, because that’s simply not who Mitt Romney is. In fact, this is a criticism of Romney by some conservatives who feel that he favors  too large of a government. Mitt Romney is a moderate, but the Democrat playbook right now is to try to turn him into a caricature that will strike fear into the hearts of low information voters.

One of the reasons that the left needs to take Romney down a peg on this issue is that, as Breitbart News editor-in-chief Joel Pollack pointed out in a piece yesterday, Barack Obama is the one who is actually proposing $900 million in cuts for FEMA, including emergency relief.

The other, more emotional reason that the left wants to attack Romney on his moral position is because of the drubbing that Romney gave President Obama during the first Denver presidential debate. Romney’s statement about our nation’s debt being a moral issue was one of the most galvanizing moments in a night filled with galvanizing moments. Romney said about deficits: 

I think it’s not just an economic issue, I think it’s a moral issue. I think it’s frankly not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in, knowing those burdens are going be passed on to the next generation. They’re going to be paying the interest and  the principal all their lives and the amount of debt were adding 1 trillion a year is simply not moral.

Whenever he brings up this point, Romney is clearly arguing against economic hedonism. It’s a compelling, mature position based on a simple, bedrock principle that is completely ignored by the advocates of excessive spending: actions have consequences.

The New York Times editorial board picked up on the dishonest meme because….well, they are the New York Times editorial board, after all. The election is now close enough where it’s time to pull out any despicable lie.

This blatant lie about mitt Romney went so far as to even garner the notice of The Atlantic. Credit where it’s due to Jordan Weissmann, who wrote:

Romney's statement was, without question, red meat for small government conservatives. But it was also extremely general, as was his followup. And both left enough wiggle room that he could easily claim that certain disaster relief functions, such as truly immense recovery efforts that require help from the military, can't be handed to the states, and so need to stay in the federal budget. 

That would be right in line with what conservatives have argued in the past. For instance, Matt Mayer, a former Bush administration official at the Department of Homeland Security, has written extensively for the Heritage Foundation on the need to cut FEMA's role in relatively routine disasters so that it can focus on handling true catastrophes.

You’ll see Obama attack dogs, especially in social media such as Twitter and Facebook, flat out saying that Romney declared FEMA immoral and wants to completely cut it out of the budget. Don’t let them get away with this falsehood. Blasting this lie with sunlight not only corrects the record, but it provides an opportunity to point out one of met Romney strikes; his moral position on deficit spending.


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