In principle, no one should try to take political advantage of a natural disaster.
In reality our politicians do it all the time, especially in presidential election years. The examples are still fresh in most Americans' minds. They include Barack Obama and Chris Christie exchanging that famous hug after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and President George H.W. Bush and then-candidate Bill Clinton rushing to Florida to show their concern for devastated Hurricane Andrew victims in 1992. And then there was the political all-out attack on President George W. Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which started a downward spiral in his poll numbers from which he never recovered.
No, it may not be ethically correct to try to score political points off of disasters, but it's politically expedient and often politically necessary. By rushing to Florida in '92, Bill Clinton staved off any chance that President Bush would narrow the gap in the polls by reminding the voters just how much more presidential and effective he could be. Bush still won Florida, but Clinton forced him to pay a lot of attention to what had been a safe red state at the time. By taking time off from campaigning just before Election Day to rush to New Jersey to embrace a Republican Governor Christie in 2012, President Obama presented himself as a leader who could at least look like he was putting partisan politics aside to attend to a disaster. Many pollsters believe the story and its powerful imagery helped Obama win re-election by a wider margin. And when federal relief to Louisiana was stalled following Katrina, Democrats in Congress excoriated President Bush and rode that negativity all the way to winning control of Congress a year later. Face it, politics is war and there are no real "time outs" in war or politics, not even in the face of disaster.
And yet this very clear and crucial political lesson has clearly been lost on both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as neither of them has found it necessary to visit the currently devastated flood areas in Louisiana. In fact, neither of them is even talking about the disaster very much in what's yet another sign that what passes for campaigning for president in America today is hardly campaigning at all... at least among the people.
But what can we expect from the two terribly flawed presidential candidates and their campaigns right now? Clinton is obviously more than content to lay as low as possible while Trump continues to shoot himself in the foot. The Trump campaign's latest staff shakeup, which included giving a major role to Breitbart co-founder Steve Bannon, looks like it's doubling down on its Twitter based verbal bombing strategy. Both of these realities leave Trump and Clinton without the sage guidance that would tell them that appearing in Louisiana now, and especially being the first candidate to appear there, would look very presidential and positive in what's been an extraordinarily negative campaign.
If Louisiana were a swing state, I suspect that at least Clinton would have been there by now. But both candidates should realize that appearing there is not about winning votes in the Bayou; it's about winning the votes of the millions of people who would see them there on video. Clinton is playing it too cautiously right now to see this as anything but an unnecessary risk, or perhaps she's terrified that she would embarrass President Obama who hasn't shown up in Louisiana yet either. Meanwhile, Trump's campaign still doesn't seem to have much savvy outside of a computer keyboard.
It's certainly not news to most Americans that we're faced with two unusually flawed choices in this election. But this latest example of their mutual ineptitude isn't just disappointing from a strategic point of view. Because while there is a cynical political aspect to all of this, it also just so happens that the chances of real help getting to disaster victims do increase once politicians at least look like they actually care. And the first and best way to do that is to show up.