When politicians are presented with a major news story that is making people afraid, they have to show that they’re on top of things. In the case of Ebola, there hasn’t been much for politicians to do — it’s being handled mostly by medical and public health experts.
So Republicans settled on a strategy of calling for a ban on travel to and from the three west African countries most affected by Ebola. (Many Democrats have since joined in; more on that later.) But experts say it’s a bad idea that could make the situation worse. Ordinarily expert opinion might not matter in an atmosphere of so much simmering fear. But is it possible that Republicans are actually losing this argument?
According to this article by Jonathan Weisman, that may be exactly what’s happening. Congressional Republicans are now conceding that you can’t actually ban flights from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, because there are no direct flights between those countries and the U.S.:
Days of news media fixation, mounting public concern and political pot-stirring have created an odd dichotomy in which leadership aides on Capitol Hill are urging caution while candidates on the campaign trail are pressing hot buttons. House Republican leadership aides have repeatedly said lawmakers are not calling for an actual ban of airline flights, even as the likes of Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, and Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, have done just that.
Because there are no direct flights from the countries afflicted with Ebola, a flight ban would have to ground connecting flights from Brussels, Amsterdam and other European cities.
The Republican leaders of the House Homeland Security Committee, in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, clarified that they would like a temporary suspension of visas to travelers from the Ebola-affected nations “while simultaneously permitting a robust effort by the U.S. government and global health agencies to combat this vicious disease in West Africa.”
Mr. McConnell, said a spokesman, Don Stewart, was “using shorthand” last week when he said, “It would be a good idea to discontinue flights into the United States from that part of the world.” He, too, supports a temporary suspension of visas, a position put into legislative language on Monday by Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, who vowed to press visa-suspension legislation when Congress returned in November.
So, McConnell was “using shorthand,” which is itself shorthand for “saying things that shouldn’t be taken seriously.”
While it’s always possible that new Ebola cases could crop up in the United States, at the moment it looks like things are under control here. Despite ample fear-mongering, the only two people who have been infected were nurses who treated Thomas Duncan, the man who returned sick from Liberia. After three weeks of quarantine, dozens of other people who had contact with Duncan have been cleared. No one who had contact with the two nurses has shown signs of the disease. And news coverage of the issue, so intense for so long, may be settling into a quieter, less sensationalistic period.
That isn’t to say that everyone will suddenly turn around to Republicans and demand to know why they tried to get everyone so terrified. That kind of accountability is in short supply in politics. But now that things may be calming down, they’re probably going to become even more vague when talking about Ebola, integrating it within a broader argument that the world is full of chaos and danger, and safety can be had if only Republicans take over the Senate — but not claiming they can actually do anything about it.
Unfortunately for Democrats, they aren’t in much of a position to capitalize if the national mood is indeed becoming less panicked. Many of them signed on to the travel ban idea, in a fairly obvious attempt to keep up with their GOP opponents in pandering to voters’ fears. While many of those from their party not running in tight races — not to mention the White House — have been keeping things in their proper perspective, the ones with an eye on November didn’t make it easy for themselves to argue that they were in the reasonable place all along.
Even with only two weeks to election day, it’s entirely possible that Ebola, the subject of so much fear and demagoguery, might not be a factor in the campaign’s outcome at all. Regardless of who prevails, that would be something to be thankful for.