The Ebola virus has spread from Africa to the US and that is producing noticeable changes in the American body politic. A national conversation in the US, that was weird already, is growing even weirder. The shifts are significant because Americans will be voting next month in elections that will determine the composition of the next Congress. What Americans talk about now could very well influence what they do later and Ebola has transformed the current political debate.
To set the scene, it is important to remember that this was always supposed to be a good year for Republicans. Polls show they are well positioned to maintain their majority in the House of Representatives and gain control of the Senate. But the conventional wisdom held that the centrepiece of their campaign would be an all-out assault on the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which has extended medical coverage to millions of Americans in the most dramatic expansion of the federal role in the health services sector in decades. The right was poised to portray the programme as yet another case of the tofu eaters in the nation’s capital sticking their noses into other people’s business.
But Ebola has turned the Republicans on their heads. Instead of blasting President Barack Obama for interfering with the US health care system, they are now pressing him — and federal agencies such as the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health — to respond more forcefully and creatively to the global epidemic. They are not calling for an end to Obamacare as much as they are calling for Obama to care. Pat Roberts, a Republican senator in Kansas locked in an unexpectedly tough re-election fight against an independent challenger, put it this way this week: “I call on the president to actually lead on this issue, take emergency action and protect American lives before we have an epidemic here at home.”
Republicans are suddenly asking very Democratic questions about what federal government can do to improve public health. Bloomberg News even reported that members of the appropriations committees in the Republican House and Democratic Senate are working on ways to throw more money at the problem. This would be done by increasing anti-Ebola spending in a bill aimed at keeping the government operating after December 11.
Yet, the newfound Republican faith in the federal solutions has been accompanied by a hardening of hearts when it comes to the man behind Obamacare. Conservatives are seizing on the spread of Ebola as evidence of the president’s unreliability — linking it to the advances of Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) militants in Syria and Iraq, management deficiencies at the Secret Service and the arrival of illegal immigrants from Mexico.
“If you look at the president’s record on anything from [Daesh] to the Secret Service to the CDC to Syria to the border, I mean, you name it and for whatever reason, every single thing the administration, as well as these Democrats running for office, touches, it is not turning to gold,” Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, said this week on a Fox News talk show. “It’s turning into something else.”
The conservative critique, in some quarters, goes beyond suggestions of mere incompetence. Obama is being portrayed as somehow complicit in the spread of the disease. The word “Ebola” is mutating into a metaphor for “Obama”. The two five-letter monikers roll off the tongue in much the same African-flavoured way and that seems to be enough for some folks to link them in what passes for their brains.
One of the most prominent examples of this tendency could be found recently on the Drudge Report, a widely followed website. A link to an article saying Democratic candidates were keeping their distance from the president was illustrated with an Obama 2012 campaign bumper sticker in which the word “Ebola” replaced the president’s name.
For $2.99 (Dh10.99), plus $1.49 for shipping, Amazon is offering a bumper sticker made out of “high-quality outdoor vinyl” with the same Ebola-Obama motif. Several websites have reported its appearance in California. I ran into some of the potential buyers myself on The Gateway Pundit, a self-described “leading right-of-centre news website” that featured a screenshot of the Drudge Report’s Ebola-Obama image.
“A vote for Democrats is a vote for spreading disease,” said one. “Ebola gets more love than Obama — it’s certainly the less harmful unwanted African import,” added another. “Don’t forget the Obama virus, coming to your kids’ school, courtesy of legions of infectious illegals,” wrote a third. “That is already killing and paralysing our children.”
The irony is that a political leader who staked his reputation on an effort to provide health insurance to more people is now being depicted as an undercover agent of a viral apocalypse. For some of his fellow Americans, the president is less a person than a pathogen. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the remaining two-plus years of his term are going to be brutal.
— Financial Times