Politics & Policy

What the Left Can’t Admit about the Politics of Ebola

President Obama and HHS secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell discuss the Ebola crisis (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
The threat of Ebola maybe be hyped, but the threat of government incompetence is real.

In the closing stages of this year’s insipid, undistinguished midterm elections, Republicans are making hay while the disaster shines. In Washington, D.C., Speaker of the House John Boehner has taken to prodding President Obama for his refusal to institute a “ban on travel to the United States from countries afflicted with the [Ebola] virus,” a message that has been picked up elsewhere by Senate candidates Joni Ernst, Mike Rounds, Thom Tillis, and David Perdue. In New Hampshire, senatorial candidate Scott Brown has been asking aloud whether the “porous” southern border represents a potential medical threat. Fox News, meanwhile, has run the debate on a loop.

The agitation has provoked an exasperated reaction in the more cynically partisan quarters of the left-leaning media. “Republicans Want You to Be Terrified of Ebola—So You’ll Vote for Them,” exclaimed The New Republic’s Brian Beutler yesterday, while, in the New York Times, Jeremy Peters grumbled that “playing off feelings of anxiety is a powerful strategy for motivating the Republican base.” At the Washington Post, the ever-reliable Greg Sargent cast the move as just one part of the GOP’s dastardly “fear-based midterm strategy.” Thus did a trio that has of late panicked publicly about the supposed return of Jim Crow, the impending end of the world, and an approaching government shutdown accuse their ideological opponents of unwarranted fear-mongering.

Whether or not Ebola constitutes a real enough threat to the United States to justify the Republican party’s stance remains to be seen. Politics being politics, it is entirely possible that the GOP has observed a certain anxiety in the public and jumped on it for electoral profit. Nevertheless, rather than rolling their eyes, progressives might take a moment to inquire as to exactly why the charge is landing. Is it that Republicans are uniquely predisposed to hysteria, and that their representatives are uniquely cynical? Or is it that disquieted voters, already skeptical of the potency of the state, have of late been given few reasons to amend their suspicion. The question of what sort of risk Ebola presents aside, fretting about the federal government’s capacity to handle basic tasks seems to me to be a reasonable reaction to its record so far. Is nobody interested in this question?

Evidently, they are not. Old habits dying hard, President Obama’s former press secretary, Robert Gibbs, has complained rather glibly that “Republicans want people to turn on the television and see that nothing is working.” I daresay that, in a narrow sense at least, Gibbs is right. We are, after all, approaching an important election, and the more bad press that the president gets, the better it is for his opponents. But, inherent to Gibbs’s charge, was the implication that the widespread perception of presidential incompetence is axiomatically false. Such presumptions are widespread. Having run rather convincingly through the brief against the White House — listing among its recent mistakes the rollout of Obamacare, the failure to predict the rise of the Islamic State, scandals involving the IRS, the NSA, the Secret Service, and the Veterans Affairs, and the “child migrant crisis” on the southern border — Brian Beutler proposed rather curiously that certain “members of the media are enabling” the Right in its characterization of the Obama administration as the “gang that can’t shoot straight.” Instead, Beutler urged, “they should be anathematizing it.”

Really, one has to ask, “Why”? It is one thing to argue that the Republican party and the fourth estate are hyping non-stories, but quite another to present a list of genuinely abject failures and then to recommend to the press that it keep quiet about them. Might we not take Occam’s Razor to the matter and conclude simply that a good number of people really are nervous that the government can’t do anything right? Further, might we not take a moment to reflect why it is that so many people have no faith in Washington, D.C.? Perhaps the state really is terrible at reacting to crises — not just under Obama, but under other presidents, too. Perhaps, having watched the most domestically ambitious administration in half a century flail and collapse in ignominy, many Americans are a touch more aporetic today than they were back in 2008?

The distaste of the Beutlers, Sargents, and Gibbses of the world is, in some part, the product of rank partisanship. But it is also the result of the specific challenge that Democratic incompetence poses to those who wish the state to be an effective and pervasive force in our national life. When Republicans are in office, progressives are able to attribute the failures of the state to any number of perfidious forces: a lack of care by those in charge; inadequate interest in helping the afflicted; a deep-seated hostility to government that, inevitably, renders it ineffective; the inherent ineptitude of those outside of the chosen class; the presumably malevolent influence of big business; deliberate, ideologically driven underfunding; etc., etc. In the wake of conservative mistakes, moreover, reformers on the left are accorded the opportunity to promise that Democrats — by virtue of being the natural party of the state — will be able do better. When such a Democrat fails to do so, however, their champions are faced with a genuine problem. Presumably, their guy can’t be evil or indifferent or corrupt. What happened?

In these instances, progressives have three choices: 1) They can deem their party’s leader to be uniquely incompetent; 2) They can charge that his opponents are guilty of sabotage (the Obamacare rollout provided a stellar example of this); or 3) They can accuse the media of whipping up critical sentiment. At no point, however, can it be conceded that government itself might perhaps be to blame, nor can it be acknowledged that, when the state intrudes in areas in which it cannot hope to do well, it invariably hurts the public’s faith in its more traditional functions. To admit as much would be to concede that there are real limits on what public officials can effectively achieve — an admission that is unlikely to be forthcoming.

Thus far, the criticisms that the Right has leveled at the president for his response to the Ebola outbreak have varied wildly in nature, ranging from the downright preposterous to the eminently reasonable. Accepting that elections are unalterably dirty and meretricious affairs, I must say I cannot convince myself to become too vexed by the more hyperbolic reactions. Politics, as a famous man once said, “ain’t beanbag,” even when deadly diseases are involved. Either way, however, it remains the case that hype thrives most keenly in a vacuum, panics being inflated, not diminished, by the absence of leadership and the dearth of faith. Once upon a time, President Obama was largely taken at his word, his assiduously cultivated reputation as a calm and detached man of competence having gained a purchase in the national psyche. Now, six years after he stood before the Greek columns and the adoring fans, he has been largely reduced to a Walter Mitty figure, whose quixotic ambition and messianic demeanor have stretched the credulity of the electorate to its breaking point. Today we are told that a good portion of the country doesn’t believe that the federal government will deal proficiently with an unpredictable threat. Well, where on Earth could they have got that idea?

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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