Governing, Not Optics, Reign. The Danger of Homestretch Over-Analysis

Major Garrett
National Journal

There are times when governing is as governing does, when the blood-sport of politics receives a jolting transfusion of reality.

When dozens of people are dead, power is gone, clean water is scarce and roads are impassable there are no optics. Pictures of politicians are tertiary to the actions of those in charge. In such times, Republicans and Democrats don't play bit parts in a media-contrived Neil Simon play.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and President Obama are not, in the context of the brutal indifference of Sandy's fury, an odd couple. The Republican Christie is not Oscar Madison and the Democrat Obama is not Felix Unger -- despite Christie's evident tendencies toward indulgence and Obama's toward fastidiousness.

Christie and Obama are chief executives blighted by a national crisis. Christie must rescue his state as rapidly as possible, and as such must attach himself fiercely to whatever aid Obama can provide.

That's what Christie meant when he said he spent a "significant afternoon" with Obama. Everything is significant right now. When Christie said Obama had "sprung into action immediately" he knew those words conveyed action and an implied contract to follow through.

Obama noted Christie's "heart and soul" effort not because he just discovered it, but because he can actually see it in action and knows by now federal efforts won't be wasted or left to idle because the governor is disorganized. That's also why he called Christie "aggressive" in pursuit of helping New Jersey "bounce back."

Obama and Christie know they are tied to each other and crisis breeds confidence. What the nation saw was that confidence, not the oddity of a political alignment.

It should surprise no one that Christie and Obama talked frequently before Sandy made landfall. It was one of the biggest storms ever seen on radar. New Jersey's shoreline and the sizable tourist revenue it generates were in the crosshairs. Christie didn't develop newfound respect for Obama or vice versa. They are governing actors in a federal system wherein states and the federal government coordinate disaster response.

When Christie welcomes Obama's support and spurns a visit from the GOP nominee he's heartily endorsed, it's not about politics it's about efficiency. Obama can order ships and planes to New Jersey. Mitt Romney might be able to buy one, but that won't do nearly as much good.

It's one of the oldest rules in politics and it bears repeating here. There is no partisan way to pick up trash. Similarly, there is no partisan way to turn power back on or provide clean water. There is only an efficient or inefficient way. In times of crisis, our nation justifiably punishes inefficiency (see Andrew, President Bush the elder and Katrina, President Bush the younger). 

But in the breach, there are no parties. Only need. Abject need that can swiftly devolve into panic and bloodshot rage if matters are not tended to, calm not provided and resources not rapidly requisitioned.

And when you're a Republican governor and the Democratic president can commandeer - as Obama has promised - a C-17 or C-130 to airlift equipment and personnel to provide power and clean water, you grab the lifeline. Ditto Navy vessels and other military assets that might alleviate traffic snarls and move people to work and school.

The great smearing tendency of modern day political analysis is to assume everything is political and therefore, considering our deep divisions, everything is partisan. That this is mostly true doesn't make it universally true.

Yes, there is a presidential campaign heading into a fateful final week. Sandy has intensified focus on Obama's temperament and demeanor in a crisis. That was happening before the Christie meeting and it will happen after it.

To the degree the imagery of the two will last matters in the sense that Obama commanded the day as a president in action and owned the media space in a way he will not again until Election Day.

It would be folly to think voters would view Obama and Christie's actions as ushering in a new wave of bipartisanship. Voters know better. They know the difference between a crisis and a two-act play.

Would we all remember as well.