The Slatest

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s Response to the Democratic Debate in Flint Was Totally Bogus

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at the Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan on Sunday.

Jim Young/Reuters

CNN’s Democratic presidential debate Sunday night was held in Flint, Michigan, which is still in the midst of a crisis that began when the city started using the Flint River as a source of drinking water in April 2014. The river’s water was corrosive and caused lead plumbing materials to leach into taps, creating major health risks for Flint children. The crisis was naturally the subject of the several questions at the start of the debate, and in their answers both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton mentioned that the city of Flint needs money for infrastructure repairs. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, objected to this point on Twitter:

You can see what Snyder is trying to do here; he’s claiming that the crisis could be explained by his party’s principal critique of government (it’s too big and bureaucratic) rather than the other party’s principal critique of government (it should do more for the middle and working class). The bad news for Snyder on this front has two components:

1. The massive bureaucratic failure was mostly his responsibility. The “emergency managers” in Flint who authorized and implemented the city’s switch to Flint River water were appointed by Snyder. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which ignored and obscured evidence of the developing lead problem to an almost unbelievable degree, was run by Snyder’s appointee.

2. The decision to switch Flint’s water source was literally about money. The reason that the emergency managers were appointed by Snyder in the first place is because Flint was going through a financial crisis, and the reason that the city switched to Flint River water was so that it could save money. From the Flint Journal in January 2015:

It was only nine months ago that Flint officials turned off the flow of already-treated Lake Huron water from the city of Detroit and started treating their own raw water from the Flint River instead, calculating that the switch could save roughly $5 million in less than two years.

If Snyder had said the crisis was about more than money, he would’ve been right. He’s also by no means the only person to blame here—the (mostly Democratic) public servants in Flint and the federal regulators in the EPA also failed. Moreover, Flint was in a financial crisis; the need to cut spending was real, not some cruel conservative contrivance. But to insist this issue is only about bureaucracy and not about money is a disappointingly glib and partisan thing for the governor to say.

What it calls to mind is something I believe that conservative satirist P.J. O’Rourke once said, which, to paraphrase, is that a Democrat is a politician who claims government can work, gets elected, and proves himself wrong, and a Republican is a politician who claims government can’t work, gets elected, and proves himself right

Read more in Slate about Flint, Michigan’s drinking water emergency and the Democratic primary.