How did Rick Perry escape blame for the Texas Ebola outbreak?
Republicans have been blaming President Obama and Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for allowing Ebola to gain a foothold in the United States. But if we're pointing fingers, it makes more sense to blame the governor of the first state where Ebola has spread: Texas.
Yes, it would be the president's responsibility to order nationwide directives like banning U.S.-bound passengers from West Africa, assuming he even has that authority, and despite public health experts warning that such a ban would be counterproductive. But hospitals and public health are mostly a state issue; the CDC can't tell hospitals what to do, only advise them of best practices.
So where has Gov. Rick Perry (R) been since late September, when Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola in Texas? Here's a quick time line.
On Oct. 1, Perry went before the cameras to assure everyone that "this is all hands on deck" and "our system is working as it should." Ebola is "substantially more difficult to contract than the common cold," and "there are few places in the world better equipped to meet the challenges posed by this case," he said. Texas has "health-care institutions and professionals who are second to none," and "professionals on every level of the chain of command know what to do to minimize any potential risk to the people of Texas."
On Oct. 6, Perry announced the creation of a Texas Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response, specifically to handle diseases like Ebola. The next day, he said he opposed travel restrictions on West Africa, arguing that "the impact from banning flights from these areas is not going to be an efficient way to deal with this." (He later reversed himself, calling for a travel ban on Oct. 17.)
Then, on Oct. 13 — two days after Dallas nurse Nina Pham was diagnosed with the first transmitted case of Ebola in the U.S. — Perry jetted off to Europe on an "economic development" trip. On Oct. 15, Perry decided to come back from Europe a few days early, after a second Dallas nurse, Amber Vinson, tested positive for Ebola.
Now, after initially talking up his coordination with the CDC, Perry has joined the critics. "He and other Texas leaders are pointing fingers at the Obama administration," say Edgar Walters and Jay Root at The Texas Tribune, "and criticizing the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for weak oversight." There's only one problem with that, Walters and Root add:
Texas had full legal power from day one to order travel restrictions or impose quarantines on nurses or other health sector workers — indeed, almost anyone suspected of posing a public health threat — but did not use that power. Seven people were isolated, but not health care workers. Had the state used its public health powers more robustly, health care workers who treated Duncan might not have been circulating in public, and much of the ensuing panic could have been stilled. [Texas Tribune]
In fact, Texas officials cleared Vinson for what later became a panic-inducing flight to Cleveland, then denied her request for a private jet back after she learned of Pham's Ebola diagnosis. The state's lack of travel restrictions on Vinson and the other 70-some health care workers who treated Duncan "kind of took everybody by surprise, almost like they didn't think about it," Emory University law professor Polly Price tells The Texas Tribune. "The thing that gets me is how the federal government gets blamed for that."
Where, then, is the blame for Perry? He is now facing some criticism, from the right and left. But it's barely a murmur compared with the roar of election-season blame being heaved on Obama and Frieden.
It's a question of raw politics, partly. Perry isn't running for anything this year, and the Democrat running to replace him, Wendy Davis, hasn't made Ebola a campaign issue. (Her opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott, would have been involved in any quarantine actions.)
Meanwhile, Republicans have found Obama to be a useful proxy for whatever Democrat they are running against. Democrats have been doing a little Ebola finger pointing, too, but not at Perry — their case is against belt-tightening congressional Republicans who allegedly wanted to shrink the CDC budget and defund public health in general.
But there is another reason, and it has to do with how Americans view the presidency. Historical data show that voters tend to bestow outsize blame on presidents for things that are far beyond their control, such as oil spills, natural disasters, and other governments' unpopular policies. They also unfairly get credit for some similarly far-fetched things, like economic growth and national fits of optimism. We take Harry Truman's line about the buck stopping at the Oval Office seriously, which is partly why the Beltway media puts a lot of stock in presidential "leadership."
Case in point: the woeful response to Hurricane Katrina, which has come to define George W. Bush's calamitous second term. As the expression goes, "success has many fathers; failure is an orphan," and Bush became Katrina's adoptive father.
If you remember anything about the terrible 2005 hurricane, it's probably Bush surveying the damage from the comfort of Air Force One and then congratulating his unqualified FEMA chief, Michael Brown. "Heckuva job, Brownie" is seared into the history books — but can you name Louisiana's governor at the time?
Her name is Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, and she was the first woman elected governor of Louisiana. A Democrat, she was in charge of the Louisiana National Guard and other state emergency-response resources. "I believe we are prepared," she said less than two days before the storm hit. "That's the one thing that I've always been able to brag about." Blanco didn't order a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans until a day later, and she has been criticized for being slow to send the National Guard into New Orleans.
The Bush administration, and especially FEMA, deserved the blame they got for Katrina, but it wasn't their disaster alone. You remember Bush's Katrina; you never hear of Blanco's Katrina.
Ebola isn't anyone's "Katrina" yet. But if Ebola somehow becomes endemic in the U.S., don't expect it to be remembered as Perry's folly, even if it started in his state, under his watch.