Despite there being no real risk of an Ebola epidemic in the United States, the perceived risk is infecting the final weeks of the midterm elections. President Barack Obama, who is usually more comfortable in the role of the passive professor-in-chief, has uncharacteristically taken the initiative over the last two days to assert his dominion over this potential crisis as the commander-in-chief. Meanwhile, Republicans, who have long sought to nationalize the midterm elections, are seizing on their likely last and best chance to tie vulnerable Democratic candidates to Obama.
Medical experts say that Ebola is highly infectious but only slightly contagious. While just the smallest droplet of sweat or blood is necessary to transmit the disease, you need to come in direct contact with the bodily fluids of a symptomatic individual who is visibly ill. Given the mode of transmission in which the disease progresses, the only people likely at risk of contagion are healthcare workers who breach infection control protocols, as has been the case with the two nurses to whom it spread in Texas. The primary reasons that this epidemic is so great in West Africa is that family members serve as surrogate healthcare providers there due to the lack of proper infrastructure.
Yet, the anxiety associated with the perceived threat of a full-blown epidemic is real. In recent polling, 65 percent of respondents say they are concerned about a possible widespread U.S. epidemic and 48 percent incorrectly believe that Ebola can be transmitted before an infected person is showing symptoms. Two-thirds of those polled support restricting entry to the country by people who have been in affected countries. The concern over Ebola has exacerbated the turmoil in the stock market, hitting airline companies particularly hard.
To counter this snowballing fear, Obama is being forced to play to one of his weaknesses. After drawing criticism during his summer vacation for going out to play a round of golf right after making remarks about the beheading of James Foley by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Obama acknowledged in a recent "60 Minutes" interview that he is not always adept with the "theater" of the presidency.
Learning from his past mistakes, the president realized that the optics of attending campaign fundraisers while the country borders on hysteria were not right. Instead, he cancelled his scheduled campaign travel and has remained at the White House the last two days to meet with his advisers and demonstrate that he is on top of the situation. He has announced the creation of SWAT teams to contain any additional outbreaks and even announced plans to name a dedicated Ebola "czar" on Friday to coordinate his administration's response. Although designating a single trusted official to oversee this issue increases accountability and can be heralded by the administration as swift executive action, it also reveals that the existing bureaucracy does not appear up to the task.
Out on the campaign trail, Republicans see the Ebola issue as perhaps their final opportunity to nationalize the elections. For months, the GOP has been trying to tie Democratic candidates to Obama and his sub-par approval. But the polling has indicated that in most races, the voters have preferred to focus on the candidates actually on the ballot. Republicans are hoping that Ebola will be the tipping point in a string of anxiety producing events — including the Ukraine crisis, the threat posed by ISIL, and a global economic slowdown that is injecting volatility back into the financial markets — which much of the electorate does not believe Obama is handling well.
For example, embattled GOP incumbent Senator Pat Roberts from the heartland state of Kansas is seeking to conflate multiple voter concerns by arguing, "We have ISIS, we have Ebola – we have to secure the border." David Perdue, the Republican challenger in Georgia, the home of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asserts, "Georgia is now at the forefront of our national response to Ebola. President Obama once again failed to lead and took a serious threat too lightly."
For their part, Democrats are blaming Republicans for cutting the budgets for public health agencies, thus hindering the response to the disease. Colorado incumbent Mark Udall, who is locked in a tight race with Republican Congressman Cory Gardner, says, "I can tell you what I'm not going to do, and that's what Congressman Gardner did — which is to vote for close to $300 million in cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) budget that funds emergency response teams."
Louisiana Congressman Bill Cassidy, a doctor challenging incumbent Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, counters this attack by arguing, "It doesn't take CDC funding to institute a travel ban." He goes on to suggest that "if it is impacting our political race, it is because it seems to be part of a broader narrative that the administration lacks leadership. The senator that I am running against frankly enables the administration and is part of their lack of leadership."
The GOP is unlikely to be able to capitalize on the current angst over the recent Ebola outbreak to win control of the Senate as it increasingly looks as though the outcome will be determined by at least one of the expected runoff races in Louisiana and Georgia scheduled for December 6th and January 6th, respectively. Even though Perdue and Cassidy are seeking to inject Ebola into their races and Georgia Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn tried to inoculate herself last evening by calling for a travel ban, there will undoubtedly be new headlines on the inevitable next crisis for the remaining candidates to fight over as these two races are placed under the nation's microscope after Election Day.
Commentary by Stephen A. Myrow, managing partner of Beacon Policy Advisors LLC, an independent policy research firm based in Washington, DC, and served as Chief of Staff to Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Robert M. Kimmitt in 2008-2009. Follow him on Twitter @smyrow.