Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Everybody's Passing the Buck in Ohio

It's been exactly 3 weeks, so most readers probably know about the Ohio train derailment. But just to make certain, a massive, 18,000-ton train with either 150 or 151 cars (reports differ), went off the rails just before 9:00 p.m. on Feb. 3, local time in East Palestine, OH. Of those 150/151 cars, 20 were carrying various sorts of hazardous materials, and 11 of the 20 were among the roughly 50 cars that derailed. They spilled about 100,000 gallons of toxic stuff, most of it things you couldn't spell if we spotted you three-quarters of the letters (e.g., 2-ethylhexyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl). The disaster displaced a large number of human beings (and exposed them to chemicals that may do long-term damage), killed more than 45,000 animals, and did as-yet-uncounted millions in property damage.

We held off on writing about this story since our focus is politics, and we were waiting to see how it developed on that front. And the manner it which it developed was... entirely predictable. Republicans, for their part, are pointing the finger at the Biden administration, in general, and at Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg in particular. There has been particular annoyance that Biden has not visited East Palestine yet, and that Buttigieg took a couple of weeks to make an in-person appearance.

The Republicans are operating on the "the buck stops here" theory. That is to say, anything bad that happens on a particular president's watch is necessarily the fault of that president (unless, of course, the president is Donald Trump). This is a questionable argument, in this case, until someone can point out something that was in Biden's power that he could have done but did not. Or something that Biden or Buttigieg did do, but should not have. We have seen nobody on the right who was offering any such specifics.

As to the in-person visits, we almost wrote something about this in our item about Biden going to Ukraine, but we rarely see the point of them (Ukraine was the exception, which is why we excised that passage). (Z) has been in California for nearly half a century, and has seen visits from presidents and other high-ranking people after floods and earthquakes and wildfires. And his response has always been "Who cares?" Sure, turn on the FEMA spigot and back up the emergency aid truck. But feel free to do that from Washington. Carping about whether or not a politician has shown up for a photo-op is just an easy way to take a cheapshot.

As to the Democrats, their focus is on the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act), which was adopted near the end of Barack Obama's term (in 2015). It required railroad operators to be more aggressive about maintenance, and in particular to install electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking systems on trains carrying large amounts of hazardous materials. The railroads complained mightily about this, and many of the rules, including the ECP rules, were rolled back by the Trump administration. Had the Ohio train had ECP brakes, it is possible the derailment might have been avoided, or at least would have been more limited in scope.

Note, however, the presence of the word "possible" there. The NTSA's report on the derailment isn't done yet, and even when it is, they can only speculate how things might have been different with better equipment. More significant, however, is that the Obama-era rules wouldn't actually have applied to this train. Some people on the left, including some who helped craft the FAST Act, have said that if railroads had been forced to upgrade the brakes on some trains, then other trains—including the one in Ohio—would also have been upgraded. You know, "a rising tide lifts all boats." But that's also rather speculative, and even if the general supposition holds true, it's entirely possible that this particular train would not have been upgraded by 2023.

In other words, neither side's finger-pointing is quite on the mark. The real story here is that, since the 1950s, the U.S. has allowed its national infrastructure to decay. That's on the ledger for both parties. It is also the case that corporations in general, and railroads in particular, have learned to play the Republican Party like a fiddle when it comes to getting rid of regulations they don't like. So, if you would like to assign two-thirds of the blame for the Ohio disaster to Republicans in general, and one-third to Democrats, we could get on board with that. But blaming just Biden, or just Trump, is too facile.

That said, "facile" is Donald Trump's stock in trade. He's looking for opportunities to get some publicity, and to score some points with the base, and so he visited East Palestine on Wednesday to blame Biden, to bring some relief supplies, and to perform empathy. Here is the "highlight" of the remarks he delivered:

I do want to especially thank some of the incredible people that helped us because we're bringing thousands of bottle[s] of water. Trump water, actually, most of it. Uh, some of it we had to go to a much lesser quality water. You want to get those Trump bottles, I think more than anybody else.

But we're bringing a lot of water—thousands of bottles and we have it in trucks and we brought some on my plane today. But to that end, I'm pleased to announce that we've helped coordinate the delivery of the water and bottled water, as well as the tractor-trailers full of it. We have big tractor-trailers full of water. I think you're gonna have plenty of water for a long time maybe.

We assume that Trump's handlers know he is just terrible at these things, and that they were unable to dissuade him from going. Anyhow, maybe this will help him score a few political points, but we are inclined to guess that the whole incident will be long-forgotten by the time people cast ballots in 2024. Maybe not in Eastern Ohio, mind you, but Ohio's already a red state, and the rural east is already Trump territory. (Z)

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