Flint’s Water Crisis Was Sadly Ignored At The GOP Debate That’s Just 70 Miles Away

During Thursday night's GOP debate in Detroit, Michigan, the scene outside the Fox Theater looked a lot different than it did on the inside. While the candidates traded blows over, well, mostly each other ― the night was notable for stretches of all-out attack on front-runner Donald Trump ― there were people in the streets outside protesting over an issue that got far too little attention: The Flint water crisis was largely ignored at the GOP debate, save for one question directly solely at the man in the third-place position.

Even beyond that, you could argue that any discussion of serious-minded accountability or reckoning with Flint went completely ignored, considering how Rubio decided to respond. Towards the back-half of the debate, Fox News host and moderator Bret Baier asked the Florida senator to respond to the Flint crisis, but with a very particular angle in mind: Baier didn't want to get into "the political blame-game." Both Democratic presidential candidates have roundly condemned Michigan's Republican governor Rick Snyder over the crisis, and have called for his resignation.

But Rubio wasn't asked about Snyder ― he was merely asked about how he'd want the GOP to address "infrastructure" problems like in Flint. For the record, the water supply in Flint, Michigan, was poisoned with lead after the state shifted their source from Lake Huron to the far cheaper, far dirtier Flint River. Here's how Rubio responded ― he pressed Baier's point by condemning the "blame-game" conversations, and gave Snyder "credit" for taking responsibility.

What happened in Flint was a terrible thing. It was systemic breakdown, at every level of government, at both the federal and, both the state, and partially at the federal level as well. And by the way, the politicizing of it, I think, is unfair. Because I don't think that someone woke up one morning and said, "let's figure out how to poison the water system to hurt someone."

But accountability is important. I will say, I give the governor credit, he took responsibility for what happened. And he's talked about people being held accountable, and the need for change, Governor Snyder. But here's the point: This should not be a partisan issue. The way the Democrats have tried to turn this into a partisan issue, that somehow Republicans woke up in the morning and decided "oh it's a good idea to poison some kids with lead?"

It's absurd, it's outrageous, it isn't true. All of us are outraged by what happened, and we should work together to solve it. And there is a proper role for the government to play at the federal level, in helping local communities to respond to a catastrophe of this kind. Not just to deal with the people that have been impacted by it, but to ensure that something like this never happens again.

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Rubio is playing more than a little fast and loose with the facts here, erecting a convenient strawman to try to exonerate Snyder from the very responsibility he says the Michigan governor took. The arguments on the part of the Democratic Party's two presidential contenders has never been that Snyder "woke up in the morning and decided 'oh it's a good idea to poison some kids with lead.'" That would be condemned as a wildly inflammatory statement, if either of them made it; they have not, in other words, suggested that Snyder is murderous or evil.

Rather, the allegation (as made repeatedly by Hillary Clinton in stump speeches, victory speeches, and on debate stages) is that the people of Flint were made to drink and bathe in lead-tainted water, "because their governor wanted to save a little money." While it's not actually entirely clear whether the decision was all about money ― that could be a fair line of criticism ― making it sound like the Democrats are accusing Snyder of deliberately scheming to poison the city is politicization of another kind altogether.

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Also, as the text above lays bare, Rubio never actually got at all specific about how he'd want the federal government to help address these sorts of crises ― he simply conceded that it had a role to play, engaged in some light apologia for Snyder, and kept things moving. None of the other candidates were given a chance to discuss the state of affairs. And considering that the outside of the debate hall was beset by Flint protesters even before the showdown got underway, Fox News could have afforded to pay it a lot more mind.