The Ebola Voter

Thirteen ways Democrats and Republicans are exploiting the virus for political gain.

Photo by Dave Kaup/Reuters
Republican Sen. Pat Roberts has called for “a quarantine on West Africa.” Above, Roberts campaigns in Gardner, Kansas, on Oct. 11, 2014.

Photo by Dave Kaup/Reuters

Ebola has arrived in the United States, and our nation’s leaders are wasting no time. They’re consulting experts, holding hearings, and demanding action. Politicians across the spectrum are united in a common goal: exploiting the crisis to win the next election.

It’s a tricky maneuver, because they don’t know much about Ebola. But they know their shticks, and that’s enough. With a tweak here and a twist there, they can shoehorn Ebola into their customary talking points. Here are the emerging favorites.

1. The war on Ebola is like the war on terror. After an ugly decade in Iraq, some Republicans took a break to dabble in civil libertarianism. Now they’re ready to get back to being the Daddy Party. President Obama is “not protecting our country and our families from Ebola,” says Rep. Tom Cotton, the Republican Senate candidate in Arkansas. Cotton promises to “rebuild our military and keep your family safe and secure, whether the threat is terrorism or disease.”

2. Obama has no strategy. When Obama admitted he was thinking through his options against ISIS, Republicans turned his remark into a gaffe. Now they’re applying the same spin to Ebola. Rep. Cory Gardner, the Republican senatorial nominee in Colorado, says Obama has no “strategy to deal with the Ebola virus.” Thom Tillis, the GOP’s candidate for senator in North Carolina, says Obama has “no plan” to stop people who would “come to this nation and threaten our safety and security.” On Thursday, Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Tim Murphy convened a hearing on Ebola. He opened it by bashing Obama’s “failed policy” and the “demonstrated failures of the current strategy.”

3. Obama thinks Ebola is the JV. First he called ISIS the junior varsity of terrorism. Then he downplayed Ebola as a junior virus. Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Virginia, chides Obama for having discounted the risk of Ebola reaching the United States. So does Bobby Schilling, a Republican House candidate in Illinois. At Thursday’s hearing, Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton sarcastically applauded Obama for leaving the campaign trail “to finally focus on the crisis.”

4. We’re on the case. Having ignored Ebola until it reached the United States, elected officials are scrambling to look as though they’re on the ball. The first step is to say you’ve talked to an expert. The number of politicians who claim to have spoken in the last week with Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is almost mathematically impossible. But if you can’t get Frieden on the phone, go to Plan B. In a debate on Wednesday, Gardner told voters he had talked to a nurse. Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor of Texas, where the virus had arrived from Liberia, said she had talked to a county judge. Don’t worry, said Davis: Everything’s under control. That was two weeks ago. Oops.

5. Screen all passengers. If Ebola is just like terrorism, the solution is obvious: airport security. At Thursday’s hearing, Murphy portrayed Ebola carriers as infiltrators, noting that they could mask their fevers with ibuprofen to sneak through checkpoints. Republicans on the committee complained that screening 94 percent of passengers wasn’t good enough: Everyone had to be checked. Democrats don’t seem inclined to resist the GOP’s demands. “I don’t think any measure is too extreme,” says state Sen. Connie Johnson, the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in Oklahoma.

6. Ban West Africans. Before the Ebola hearing, Republicans were clamoring for a ban on travel to the United States from the affected countries. Frieden and other health officials testified that this was a bad idea, in part because it could easily be circumvented (by stopping over in Europe), and it might force carriers to hide their symptoms. Republicans were unmoved. After the hearing, they went straight to the TV cameras and delivered precooked talking points they had imported from Iraq and Syria. With colleagues arrayed behind him, Upton called for a “no-fly zone from that region of the world.”

7. Seal the border. It’s the Republican answer to any questions about immigration. Why not use it for Ebola, too? Gillespie says Ebola and ISIS have made our “porous Southern border” a “public health threat and a public safety threat.” Sen. Pat Roberts, running for re-election in Kansas, says it’s all one issue: “Ebola, ISIS, or whoever comes across the border—the 167,000 illegals who are convicted felons—that shows you we have to secure the border, and we cannot support amnesty.” While we’re at it, says Roberts, let’s impose “a quarantine on West Africa.”

8. Blame budget cuts. For Democrats, it’s all about the spending. Colorado’s Democratic Sen. Mark Udall says Gardner, his Republican challenger, tried to cut $770 million from the CDC budget, which would have impeded the agency’s response to Ebola. Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democratic Senate candidate in Iowa, says his opponent, Republican Joni Ernst, “supported a radical plan to shut down the federal government,” which “dramatically cut funding” for the CDC and the National Institutes of Health. At Thursday’s House hearing, Colorado Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette suggested that Congress’ tight purse strings on NIH had prevented the agency from developing an Ebola vaccine. (Slate’s Josh Voorhees says the timeline lends credence to this claim.) California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman blamed Republicans for a complex chain of events that began with the 2011 fiscal standoff, led to across-the-board budget cuts, and ended with Ebola. “Those who allowed that sequestration to happen by closing the government,” said Waxman, are responsible for leaving the country “vulnerable.”

9. Blame tax cuts. This adds another layer to the budget-cut lament. Warner says the road to ruin began with conservative activist Grover Norquist, who drafted a no-tax-increase pledge in 1986, which forced Republicans to swear off tax hikes, which led to a fiscal squeeze, which crippled the CDC and NIH, which blocked the Ebola vaccine.

10. Bureaucrats misspent the money. This is the Republican answer to any budget-cut complaint. Just look up the agency’s projects, pick the ones that sound stupid, and claim that if the agency hadn’t wasted money on them, it could have managed its obligations. Gardner’s version in his Wednesday debate with Udall was classic: “Perhaps the CDC should quit spending money on things like jazzercise, urban gardening, and massage therapy.”

11. Blame lack of insurance. Now that Republicans are blaming everything on Obamacare, it’s easy to forget that Democrats used to blame everything on a lack of Obamacare. The sick Liberian who brought Ebola to the United States gives liberals an opening to revive this complaint. “The first Ebola patient showed up at the Dallas hospital with a 103 fever,” Rep. Mike Michaud, the Democratic nominee for governor of Maine, pointed out in a debate Wednesday night. “Because he had no insurance, they gave him aspirin and sent him on his way. He [then] had contact with 50 other individuals.” Michaud blamed all of this on Maine’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, who stood six feet from Michaud and about 1,600 miles from Dallas. “The fact that this governor has vetoed not once, but five times, expansion [of Medicaid] under the Affordable Care Act—that’s reckless, it’s wasteful, and it leaves us vulnerable.”

12. Blame neglect. When the other party controls the executive branch, it’s easy to pin everything on them. Something bad happened—Benghazi, Katrina, 9/11—and the administration failed to stop it or manage it. But be careful. On Wednesday, Kevin Wade, the Republican Senate candidate in Delaware, tried to blame the Ebola mess on the absence of a confirmed surgeon general. The gambit backfired when his opponent, Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, pointed out that Republicans had blocked Obama’s nominee for the job because the nominee had called gun violence a public health issue.

13. Politics stops at Ebola’s edge. After 9/11, Republicans tried to shame Democrats into supporting President Bush without dissent. Now Democrats want the same fealty to Obama. The argument sounds like a sermon against gamesmanship—let’s “put aside partisan differences,” says Braley—but it’s barbed with an exploitative brand of patriotism. “When we stand together, we’re going to meet this challenge,” Udall told voters during his debate with Gardner on Wednesday. “The virus is the enemy.” Then he accused Gardner of endangering the CDC and undermining the war. Even the pleas to rise above politics are infected with politics. It’s the virus we can’t beat.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Ebola.