In the movies “Outbreak” (1995) and “Contagion” (2011), Hollywood envisaged a health crisis in which an Ebola-like epidemic plunges the United States into chaos. Fear has fueled the Nov. 4 midterm election campaign thanks to the media hysteria started by CNN and relayed by Fox News. When schools in Ohio and Texas were closed for several days after a second person contracted the disease on American soil, the pandemic turned into an electoral issue exploited by both camps.
The Republicans have already tried to use Ebola within a very “9/11” framework. Kansas Republican Senator Pat Roberts advocated restricting flights to African countries affected by the epidemic. In New Hampshire, Scott Brown used Ebola to accuse his Democratic opponent of neglecting the country’s southern border. But the Oct. 15 announcement of a second case of contamination within the United States set things off, and the Republicans now hold all the cards, as they have for a decade, to play on the image of a Democratic Party incapable of reassuring the public and a president who cannot fulfill his responsibilities as commander-in-chief.
The beginning of Obama’s second term has been hellish for the White House: the hiccups of the “Obamacare” computer system, the scandal over (the lack of) veteran care, the influx and detention of migrant children, the rudimentary handling of the Syrian crisis, the hesitant response to Islamic State advances, and the inability of the Secret Service to keep intruders away from the White House. All this was topped off by the publication of former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s memoirs, which described the president as adverse to confrontation and unable to seize opportunities. Subsequently, the rhetoric of the “improv president” strengthened the image the Grand Old Party has been trying to use during the campaign.
During an election, candidates from the party in power are partially dependent on the image of the president, and they know their fortunes can suffer with his. Republicans learned this the hard way after the disastrous way Hurricane Katrina was handled in August 2005. President George W. Bush, who was then on vacation, waited a long time before visiting the disaster area. A year later, voters delivered their final verdict. Obama is trying to avoid these errors: He cancelled several public events last week and last Friday, he appointed a special adviser, Ron Klain, to manage the Ebola health crisis.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, advertising spending could reach $1 billion during this electoral cycle. Democrats, who invest much more than the Republicans do on advertising (70 percent of which is negative), seized the opportunity and adopted the credo of the effects of budget cuts, those clamored for by Republicans (especially tea partiers) and the ones implemented through the automatic cuts or sequestration, which was created during the political impasse of summer 2011.
Thus the Agenda Project (a liberal, nonprofit political group) produced a video that airs in states with tight senate races (Kentucky, North Carolina, South Dakota, Iowa, Kansas). In the background, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases outlines the disastrous consequences of budget cuts on pandemic management planning while the word “cut” is repeated by well-known Republicans (Sarah Palin, Michele Bachman, Paul Ryan) in high-level positions (John Boehner) or potential 2016 candidates (Chris Christie, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio). The sequence ends with a quote from Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, who says, “Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready.” The video stops. On a black screen are three words: Republican. Cuts. Kill.
While the parties try to ride the wave of anxiety, the electorate remains volatile. In fact, a Washington Post survey revealed that they are mostly unsatisfied (76 percent) with the government’s management of Ebola, but are confident (62 percent) about the administration’s ability to handle a pandemic. The virus may not change the Democrats’ predicted defeat. But capitalizing on Ebola could have lasting effects on the relationship between electors and their institutions. Though the United States is far from having a true pandemic crisis, it is on the verge of a serious crisis of confidence.