After mere days of Republican mouthpieces like the volatile Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) calling for the president to anoint an “Ebola Czar” to give an appearance of executive oversight on the health crisis, Obama decided Friday, to name Ron Klain, a “savvy politician” to the position.
It was only a matter of time until the GOP realized that they would have been better off approving Obama’s nominee for Surgeon General of the United States, than deal with their misgivings about a Democratic worker bee whose appointment requires no check and balance from Congress.
Indeed, less than 24 hours after the announcement, Republicans assailed Klain as a politician, not a medical professional. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) told CNN, “While the President’s pick may have the ear of the White House and experience from the campaign trail, I am concerned he doesn’t have significant relationships in the medical community that are imperative during this current biological emergency.”
McCaul, who is chair of the House Homeland Security Committee went on to call for the president to “create a permanent position within the government to coordinate the response,” CNN said.
But again, there already is a permanent position to coordinate a medical response – the Surgeon General. McCaul’s colleagues on the Hill won’t let it through because the nominee, Dr. Vivek Murthy, once called guns a public health crisis, so the pistol packers at the National Rifle Association warned lawmakers they would score the confirmation vote.
Politico reports that 29 House Democrats, who don’t get a vote in the confirmation process on the other side of the Capitol, wrote a letter to both Senate party leaders, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), urging Dr. Murthy’s nomination forward. “Given the public’s increasing fears regarding the spread of the disease,” the letter says, “it is imperative that we confirm a Surgeon General who will play a significant role in educating the American public about the disease.”
President Obama echoed that concern in his Saturday weekly radio address. “This is a serious disease,” he said, “but we can’t give in to hysteria or fear-because that only makes it harder to get people the accurate information they need. We have to be guided by the science.”
Ahh, science – the process that comforts the rational and confounds the fearful. But comfort doesn’t excite voters nearly as effectively as fear.
That may be why even some Democrats are now calling for travel restrictions from the West African countries where the virus is prevalent. Georgia Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn, Thursday, called for at least a “temporary travel ban to affected countries in West Africa with an exception for military and health workers,” but went on to admit that “Scientists and public health experts at the CDC are in the best position to guide our response to this crisis.”
The president, Saturday, said he does not agree with taking that drastic step:
“Trying to seal off an entire region of the world-if that were even possible-could actually make the situation worse. It would make it harder to move health workers and supplies back and forth. Experience shows that it could also cause people in the affected region to change their travel, to evade screening, and make the disease even harder to track.”
Fear is not the appropriate response, but it is very American, in the sense that nothing happening in the world seems to matter until it happens to us. This is a classic American pitfall, where we reach for a mask of ugly paranoia because of our own self importance.
To borrow a slogan from McCain’s ill fated 2008 presidential campaign, “America First” is where we always get tangled up. If we are first, who is second? Third? More importantly, which population is the last we consider worthy of attention and concern until the desperation and disease imbued in their toxic poverty creeps onto our shores? They’ve been slammed by a sledgehammer and we turn away, but cry at our own pin prick.
Make no mistake. “Ebola is truly scary,” as University of Chicago social services professor, Harold Pollack, wrote in Politico, Sunday. But he urged us to keep the situation in perspective:
“It has so far killed nearly 4,500 people, overwhelmingly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone—societies that had already experienced more than their fill of sorrow. There are only three confirmed cases in the United States: Two American nurses were infected in Dallas after they cared for a severely ill Ebola patient who had contracted the disease in Liberia. In Africa, it’s a disaster; within the United States, however, Ebola is a tragic, but eminently containable public health threat that requires a calm, methodical response.”
Pollack goes on to say that given the facts about the disease, and the infinitesimally small rate of infection in the United States, we should be more concerned about how alarmist our media is making the situation. “If you’re just tuning in,” he added, “you might believe that America has lost its mind.”
The phrase “abundance of caution” has been prevalent in stories about Ebola. People vomit on airplanes all the time, but now, we lock them in bathrooms. We close schools and bridal stores for a disease that is not communicable except through direct contact with bodily fluids. That’s not “caution;” it’s rationalized paranoia.
The good news for Dr. Murthy and his supporters is his nomination vote may be scheduled after election day, when the NRA’s scoring threat has less immediate impact. Still, if control of the Senate is not settled until runoffs complete in January, it is less likely Reid will bring it to the floor with all the other items of business the Congress must get done before the new year.
Meanwhile, the “calm, methodical response” that Pollack calls for is expected in the person of Mr. Klain, which is why an administrator rather than a scientist is what is required, here. Inasmuch as we now have an Ebola czar, he has our blessings. Those who are still railing against him do so only to fill the echo chamber of paranoia and hate.