What Hillary Clinton needs to learn from the Flint water crisis

Clinton seemed to say all the right things about the crisis in Michigan. But there's something she still ignores

By Marcy Wheeler
Published January 21, 2016 10:05PM (EST)
Hillary Clinton  (AP Photo/) (AP/Patrick Semansky)
Hillary Clinton (AP Photo/) (AP/Patrick Semansky)

On Sunday, Flint, Michigan's, eighteen month-plus struggle to get safe drinking water became an issue in the Democratic primary. When asked what issue should have been discussed at that evening's debate, Hillary Clinton raised Flint, "a city in the United States of America where the population which is poor in many ways and majority African American has been drinking and bathing in lead contaminated water."

Clinton laid out the things she had done in the previous week to learn about the problem and suggested that her call, on "The Rachel Maddow Show," for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to ask for federal help led him to take action. "I said, 'It was outrageous that the governor hadn't acted' and within two hours he had," Hillary said, suggesting though not saying explicitly there was a causal connection between the two events.

Bernie Sanders, answering the same question, repeated a comment he had made earlier in the weekend:

"What I did, which I think is also right, is demanded the resignation of governor. A man who acts that irresponsibly should not stay in power."

The two answers have been interpreted as characteristic of the difference between the candidates. "The different approaches are emblematic of the ways the two Democratic presidential candidates respond to problems -- and would perhaps continue to do so if they win the presidency," the Huffington Post wrote the day after the debate. "Sanders goes big, not always worrying about whether what he's proposing is politically realistic. Clinton, meanwhile, focuses on the pragmatic instead of the aspirational, using her experience as a guide to what can get done."

Only, HuffPost's analysis was misleading in a way that is also "emblematic" of the difference between the two candidates. The story adopted Hillary's suggestion that Snyder's call for federal aid was a response to her own interventions. "On Thursday, Hillary Clinton went on national television and chastised Snyder for refusing to ask for federal assistance in order to help the affected residents," the HuffPo relayed. 'Two hours after that interview aired on 'The Rachel Maddow Show' on MSNBC, the governor did just that."

In fact, Snyder first said he planned on asking for federal help on January 11, three days before Hillary's appearance on "Maddow," and locals had been demanding it for longer. Clinton's suggestion that her call led Snyder to finally make the federal request is not backed by the timeline. A more logical precipitating explanation for Snyder's renewed focus in the last few weeks on fixing the problem in Flint was the story, published the morning that Snyder first declared a state emergency, that the U.S. Attorney's office in Detroit was investigating the crisis.

Here's why all this matters.

The lead poisoning of Flint's water was caused, in significant part, by a series of policy wonks claiming to know how to fix the city's problems, none of whom have made much progress on doing so. Michigan first instituted "Emergency Managers" in 1988, under Democratic Gov. Jim Blanchard, to address financial unsustainability of cities caused by white flight, globalization, and state funding formulas. Snyder got a dramatic expansion of EM powers in 2011, including the ability to vacate contracts with unions. After a state referendum overturned those new powers in 2011, the Republican legislature restored some of them, effectively insisting on the authority to suspend local democracy even after voters in the state voted to eliminate that authority.

The decision to switch the water supply to save money was made in 2013 under an Emergency Manager, Ed Kurtz, who was serving his second stint and the city's third stint under declared financial emergency; the city has had three EMs since, one of whom, Darnell Earley, now presides as EM for Detroit Public Schools during an extended teacher sick-out protesting the failure to address persistent squalor in those schools.

For almost 25 years, both parties in Michigan tried to resolve systematic problems of its predominantly African American cities -- and the problems are real -- with imposed wonkery. In 2012, Republicans made that system their own, in defiance of a majority voters. And all this wonkery continued without reversing the underlying causes of its cities' serial instability.

You'd think after so many serial emergencies in the same cities, someone might finally decide the wonks didn't have the answers.

That brings us back to the debate, where two presidential candidates briefly made Flint a centerpiece of their campaigns.

Both Hillary and Bernie were campaigning long before October. That's when it became widely known that Flint's children had elevated lead levels, though signs that the water was a problem came much earlier, and General Motors switched off Flint water because it was too corrosive for auto parts a full year earlier.

Since last October -- indeed for months and months before that time -- local activists have been fighting to attract attention to their plight, to win the legal right to switch back to a clean water supply, and to prove that the water has been dangerous. Their efforts were followed by local journalists, the ACLU, a doctor whose tests were initially attacked by the state, and some local politicians. All the things that led to Snyder's switch, including Hillary's attention, wouldn't have happened without grassroots activists rebelling against failed wonkery.

That doesn't mean Bernie's demand that the governor resign would provide any better accountability than the lawsuits and federal investigation already under way, especially since the lieutenant governor, Republican Brian Calley, is less likely to convince the legislature to pay to fix the damage done than Snyder. However, the increased pressure on Snyder -- and the taint to his legacy as a wonk -- makes it more likely Snyder will do so.

Fundamentally, though, this presidential election, on both the Republican and Democratic side, has been an expression of largely justifiable anger at the wonks. DC's policy wonks, whether on globalization, the financial crisis, serial wars on terror and select dictators in the Middle East, or universal health care, haven't delivered the results they promised for a lot of Americans, whether they live in Flint, Michigan, or in Burns, Oregon. Donald Trump's supporters distrust the wonks just as much as Bernie Sanders' do.

As polls tighten, Hillary has been suggesting that Bernie doesn't have a plan -- not for foreign policy (where Hillary's role in a failed Libya intervention has been largely ignored amid the noise of the fake Benghazi scandal), not for health care (though, beyond negotiating drug prices, Hillary hasn't offered her plan to improve ObamaCare either).

But as Trump and, with him, the Republicans search around for convenient scapegoats -- immigrants, Muslims, China -- to distract from the failures of conservative policies, Democrats would do well to adopt the principle of real accountability. And that starts by paying tribute to the activists without whom no change is possible.

Marcy Wheeler

Marcy Wheeler writes at EmptyWheel.net and is the author of "Anatomy of Deceit."

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Bernie Sanders Elections 2016 Flint Water Crisis Hillary Clinton The Democratic Primary