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Our leaders can’t win in deep snow

A political truism: When it’s all snow all the time, you can’t win if you’re a government leader.

This year’s serial onslaught uncovers the dark side of what has been the political upside of natural disaster. It’s great if the disaster comes and goes quickly. If it’s too big and lasts too long, you’re the goat.

The battering we took this week might make the case. It was akin to torture. It might just as well have been water boarding. It should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention. No more than one 28-inch pasting allowed in any four-day period unless you’re running for governor of Alaska or mayor of Buffalo.

Here, there was big trouble — and constituent anger — from the start.

Nine vehicles, including three tractor-trailers, got stuck on Interstate 95 in the suffocating Saturday snow. That jam-up was cleared, whereupon another big rig jack-knifed. Murphy’s Law, right?

The blame game

No, political incompetence!

“I’m hesitant to point the finger of blame at anyone, but it does seem it could have been handled better,” a stranded motorist told The Sun.

Why couldn’t Gov. Martin O’Malley keep that truck from jack-knifing?

He was, actually, doing what governors eagerly do in big snowstorms: TV interviews. You grimly, seriously, commandingly urge people not to get caught in six-hour backups. Sometimes they even listen.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake endured a baptism by snow with serene equanimity and bonhomie. She, too, was in charge and, it seemed, ubiquitous. Everywhere there was a TV camera, the new mayor was ready to urge people to please stay home.

Another satisfied city customer, surveying the clotted side streets of Baltimore, sneered: “Where’s the tax money go?”

So much, for the show biz side of the snow biz.

If you weren’t shooting the wounded, here’s what you had to be thinking as you watched our earnest leaders: How in the world will we pay for the clean-up? Every government at every level had a deficit going into snowmageddon.

Overtime and snow removal budgets were blown by the first assault. Maryland is accumulating enough snow to double or triple the annual average. I don’t know why Gov. O’Malley and Mayor Rawlings-Blake couldn’t have foreseen that.

What now? Will they implore their department heads to stamp out a little more waste, fraud and abuse?

I plead guilty to indulging in a bit of mockery here. I think city, county and state governments squeezed out the fat long ago. With the storm, I think they did about as well as they could have.

We’re not Buffalo. We can’t budget as if we were.

There’s only one rule

And believe this:

No leader intent upon re-election is likely to suggest that citizens pony up a little extra to cover extraordinary costs. We’ve heard the litany of election year rules, but there’s actually only one rule: No new taxes. That option would be a difficult one even if it were not an election year.

Family budgets are beyond strained. And the future is sketchy. We’ve lost millions of jobs. No one knows if they’ll ever come back. Working families know they won’t get a raise without an act of Congress — so, since Congress can’t act on anything, no raise.

In the old days or, as they say, back in the day, people would pitch in. You might not have to ask. The need was right there in front of them. They’d put up a barn. They’d help a burned-out family. They’d pass the hat.

Or at least that’s the story of our country, our community, our good-neighborliness.

And, to be sure, you could see that spirit on those unplowed side streets. People helped each other. They drove each other to the store for Super Bowl provisions. They honored the lawn chairs in laboriously cleared parking spaces. They talked to neighbors they hardly knew. They complimented each other on their well-cleared sidewalks. They were proud of their shoveling exertions.

They had hope. They believed in a warming trend. They knew the sun would come up — if not tomorrow, the next day.

Along with another 10-20.

We could say, bring it on.

But no mas would be more like it.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears weekly in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.