Ohio is dealing with an environmental crisis — and a political circus

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Amid lingering health concerns for the residents of East Palestine, Ohio, following the derailment of a train carrying dangerous chemicals several weeks ago, politicians from both parties have traveled to the small rural town to call for change — and to point fingers at their rivals.

Former President Donald Trump handed out branded bottled water and falsely accused the Biden administration of doing “absolutely nothing” for the people of East Palestine while touring the area last week with Ohio’s recently elected GOP Sen. J.D. Vance and local Republicans. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the town the following day, calling for stricter policies to “make rail safer to everyone.”

Partisan jockeying was relatively subdued in the first two weeks following the derailment, which prompted authorities to ignite rail cars carrying hazardous chemicals such as vinyl chloride in order to prevent an explosion. By last week, though, the situation had become the source of major political debate. Republicans and conservative news outlets claim that the White House was too slow to offer support for East Palestine’s residents. Democrats argue that the GOP’s long history of rolling back regulations at the behest of the rail industry has set the stage for incidents like this.

All this back-and-forth is happening as East Palestine’s residents are dealing with ongoing fears about contamination of the air and water. Although the government says repeated tests suggest both are safe, people in the area are reporting worrying symptoms, and the long-term health effects of the spill may not be clear for years.

Why there’s debate

While support for local residents, as well as the success of the ongoing cleanup effort, are most important, any major news event can also have a significant political impact.

Some analysts say Republicans have successfully used the incident to portray Democrats as indifferent to the plight of rural Americans — particularly those in predominantly white, conservative parts of the country. A big part of why they’ve been able to do that, some argue, is the slow-footed public response from the Biden administration, which critics say didn’t do enough to highlight the steps it was taking to protect the people of East Palestine.

Others argue that the GOP’s message rings hollow because Republicans don’t have any real solutions for the problems facing East Palestine, or to address broader safety issues in the rail industry. Democrats, some say, can take control of the narrative by advancing strong policies in Congress to prevent future rail disasters and through executive action — forcing Republicans to either oppose popular measures or help deliver a regulatory win for President Biden.

There have also been many calls — from local residents and national pundits alike — to stop the political gamesmanship over East Palestine. Critics say this situation requires unity across partisan lines in order to provide support for people who deserve so much more than to be treated as political pawns.

What’s next

The high-profile incident has raised some hopes that there could be a rare opportunity for bipartisan agreement to pass legislation to impose tighter safety rules on the rail industry. The details of what might end up in that potential bill — and the odds that it could make it through a divided Congress — are unclear at the moment.


The White House has gifted Republicans a big political victory

“It is the Biden administration’s flailing response, through its telegenic transportation secretary, that has allowed Trump to reap his political reward anyway. … At the minimum, it’s embarrassing that it took such opportunism to make Buttigieg understand he had to travel to the scene of the derailment. It shouldn’t take far-right figures who otherwise want to hollow out the federal government to become unwitting champions of the environment.” — Ross Barkan, New York

Republicans’ rebukes of Democrats accomplishes little if they don’t follow through

“It’s easy for Republicans to pretend to be anti-corporate by criticizing a company for being ‘woke.’ It’s something else entirely to support government action that challenges unfettered corporate power and genuinely improves people’s lives. This is where the new breed of conservative populism often seems to wither.” — Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent, Washington Post

Democrats’ best political tactic is also the best way to secure real results

“Democrats might not be able to pass anything through the Republican-controlled House (though they might as well try), but if they keep up the pressure and attention, the railroads might do what they want anyway. Norfolk Southern clearly thought that this derailment would blow over relatively quickly. … If Democrats raise enough of a fuss, the company, and the entire rail industry, might just start operating their business responsibly.” — Ryan Cooper, American Prospect

The situation adds fuel to the idea that Democrats don’t care about white rural Americans

“The Flint water crisis … when there was lead poisoning among children and people out there. The politicians, including Biden at that time, were immediately on the ground. They tried to make it a political issue about racial discrimination. And so the contradiction or the disparate treatment here will probably be picked up by some Republicans on the right just showing … how Democrats are abandoning or neglecting these rural working-class white towns.” — Allysia Finley, Wall Street Journal

Democrats can only win the political battle if they make serious efforts to improve rail safety

“This is a no-brainer: The disaster in East Palestine has led to a massive increase in coverage of train derailments, drawing attention to the dangerous consequences of deregulation. Republicans can blather all they want, but they don’t have a plan to fix anything. All Democrats have to do is say they’ll make the trains safer.” — Alex Shephard, New Republic

East Palestine has given Trump a chance to revive his successful 2016 campaign approach

“Conservative dog-whistling about how white people in red states are pariahs in their own country who need to beef up their political muscle in order to ensure their own survival was a tactic that helped Trump win a presidential election. And I’m ruefully reminded of that period as I watch him and his supporters take advantage of East Palestine the same way.” — Tayo Bero, Guardian

Voters will see right through the GOP’s disingenuous criticisms

“Trump and any other Republicans hoping to make political hay off of East Palestine’s misery are coming to town empty-handed. None of the anti-Biden critics on this issue have offered a solution, because they can’t. The only fix for the kind of runaway abuses of modern capitalism that cause these environmental catastrophes is government regulation, aided by empowering worker safety with strong unions — two things that the Trump-led GOP has opposed at every turn.” — Will Bunch, Philadelphia Inquirer

The situation undermines Biden’s effort to present himself as a warrior for the working class

“The train disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, was an opportunity for Biden to show that he really ‘gets it,’ by coming to the rescue of America’s forgotten men and women, and holding accountable the market and governmental elites responsible for their misery. But the president utterly flubbed it.” — Sohrab Ahmari, American Conservative

There should be no place for political games in East Palestine

“The lack of faith in government officials that has been sown through deep polarization is particularly costly in times when disasters like this strike. Citizens need solutions to big problems such as what we now have in East Palestine, not politicians looking to score political points. Environmental toxins do not care whether one is a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent.” — David Raack, Chris Bowers and Robert Alexander, Columbus Dispatch

Both sides have a weak argument because they both failed the people of East Palestine

“The disaster has become a proxy battle where existing political divides are playing out—and where the failings of both of the contemporary parties are on clear display. The Democratic Party struggles to respond effectively to a crisis with empathy rather than technocratic policy lectures. The Trump-era Republican Party, meanwhile, says all the right things and advocates for all the wrong ones.” — David A. Graham, The Atlantic

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Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via Getty Images, Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo, Spencer Platt/Getty Images