What's the big commotion?

Photographer: Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Politicians Brave Even No-Show Snow

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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As the latest storm of the century bore down on the East Coast this week, Chris Christie was ready. The New Jersey governor's personal state of emergency contrasted sharply with the more relaxed posture he adopted five years ago. Then, he had complained bitterly about pressure to return from his vacation at Disney World to oversee his state's efforts to dig out from the 30 inches of snow that had accumulated over the Christmas holiday.

"I was not going to rescind my child's Christmas gift, especially when I was convinced that we had a plan in place," he said in response to the suggestion that he should have left the happiest place on Earth for a command center in Trenton. “It’s not like in the 1800s when, you know, nobody would be able to get me."

He dismissed the "carping and craziness" about his absence as "just partisanship."

Who says politicians can’t grow in office? This time, Christie was governor in full. For the blizzard projected to bury his state, he turned into an action figure, running from photo-op to photo-op, marshalling his divisions of snowplows, transit officials (he shut down the trains) and emergency responders.

He wasn't the only public official to make sure to display an overabundance of caution. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio went into full Snow Nanny mode, shutting down the city's roads, transit systems, schools and even parks. The two politicians vied for the most-alarmed crown via competing news conference.

Although this week's Snowmageddon turned out to be something of a dud, barely a snowman's-worth, it was a perfect storm of another sort, arising not from colliding low-pressure systems but from the exquisite sensitivity of our politicians and media to other forms of ambient pressure. It provided an all-too-rare opportunity to don some fashionable outerwear and strike heroic poses, as they braved the unchained elements while their constituents hunkered down at home.

These histrionics are enabled, encouraged even, by a well-tooled meteorological industrial complex -- content-starved cable and local television news executives and weathermen -- ready to converge in an orgy of self-promotion in the guise of public safety.  

That’s because -- in the calculus of politicians -- it is far preferable to be seen as an overzealous over-reactor than as a detached under-reactor. Cuomo and de Blasio engaged in one-upmanship, as the governor shut down the subway without telling the mayor, bringing the city's economy to its knees, for what turned out to be only the 36th biggest snowstorm in New York in the last 125 years, a mere dusting.

Nonetheless, on Tuesday, Cuomo was still swanning around in his blue windbreaker as if he’d saved Gotham from the Joker.

Sure, Cuomo, de Blasio and Christie have had to endure some jibes for going to DEFCON 1, particularly on late-night TV. But those are easy to brush off just by reminding folks what would have happened had the big one hit. It seems politicians have developed an aversion to the idea of calm before the storm thanks to a lore of creepy stories about the misfortunes that befell their colleagues who were punished for under-reacting (a statistically insignificant number actually).  

There's the bone-chiller about Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic who waited too long to plow (except his own street) in 1979, and lost re-election. Or the spine-tingler about Governor Thomas Meskill of Connecticut who, in 1973, was at a ski chalet in Vermont as his state endured the worst ice storm in decades (memorialized in the novel and movie "The Ice Storm"). He didn’t even bother to run for another term.

New York mayors including John Lindsay and Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News's parent company, were criticized for their handling of snowstorms, too.

But those are exceptions. Washington Mayor Marion Barry, who always found himself someplace warm when the inevitable January snowstorm hit the capital, didn’t have a plow to commandeer because he hadn’t paid the bills. When found out, he said that God brought the snow and he would take it away. He won again and again.

Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia bungled the response to a three-inch snowfall in 2014 that caused epic traffic jams and stranded thousands. He still won a second term in November.

No matter. The new normal is to seize weather events -- extreme or otherwise -- as an opportunity to stage a set piece: frequent news conferences, a sign language interpreter, commissioners lined up behind you and emergency workers itching for an all-nighter manning heavy equipment.

Then there are the reporters who seem to believe that we haven't caught on as, again and again, they position themselves against some damp backdrop and come up with new ways to say how terrible it COULD have been. This week, one newscaster wandered a scarily empty and almost snow-free Fifth Avenue, scooped up as much snow as her arms would allow and threw it up in the air to suggest what it would have been like had actual precipitation arrived.

Of course, politicians can't manipulate the weather any more than the rest of us. But they keep hoping to hit that sweet spot where they appear to be focused entirely on public safety but are actually watching their favorable job rating rise. Until someone does some accounting of the cost of overreaching, the phenomenon of grandstanding politicians will be like the weather itself: Everyone will complain but no one will do anything about it.

We may get the Big One yet. This time, the whole world won't be watching. The politics and weather cartel will cry wolf but counter-programming will prevail. I predict a split-screen at best and intermittently: The Super Bowl rolls over everyone and everything, even the weather. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net