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Will Ebola Impact Midterm Elections?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. And this...

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MARTIN: ...Is For the Record.

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MARTIN: This is a new segment on WEEKEND EDITION Sunday, a chance to get you up to speed on the biggest story of the past week. Then, we'll turn the corner and focus on where the story goes next. For the Record today, the politics of Ebola. Here's how the week unfolded. Republicans amped up their criticism of the Obama administration and how it's handled the Ebola outbreak.

Here's Arizona Senator John McCain one week ago today on CNN.


SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: We don't know exactly who's in charge. There has to be some kind of czar.

MARTIN: On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said there was no need to create a new job to manage the Ebola outbreak.


WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: At this point we have a very clear line of responsibility. That's what we've been using so far.

MARTIN: On Wednesday, the CDC confirmed a second Texas nurse had contracted Ebola. Here's Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings at a press conference the same day.


MAYOR MIKE RAWLINGS: It may get worse before it gets better - but it will get better.

MARTIN: U.S. airports continued screening passengers from West Africa for Ebola symptoms. And on Thursday, the head of the CDC, Thomas Frieden, faced tough questions on Capitol Hill. Here's Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise.


MAJORITY WHIP STEVE SCALISE: Have you had conversations with the White House about a travel ban?


SCALISE: That's a yes or no question. Have you had conversations with the White House about a travel ban?

FRIEDEN: We've discussed many aspects.

SCALISE: How about a travel ban? Have you had that conversation?

MARTIN: Other Republicans join the call for the U.S. to close its borders to prevent the spread of the disease. Here's Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Friday.


GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: I believe it is the right policy to ban air travel from countries that have been hit hardest by the Ebola outbreak.

MARTIN: And by Friday, the White House changed its mind about appointing an Ebola czar and did just that - former aide to Vice President Joe Biden, Ron Klain. As for those calls for a travel ban, yesterday President Obama said it is not an option.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Trying to seal off an entire region of the world, if that were even possible, could actually make the situation worse.

MARTIN: So that is how the story moved this past week. Now, for a look at where the story goes from here, we're joined by NPR political correspondent Mara Liasson in Washington and Jacquielynn Floyd, she is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. She joins us on the line from Dallas. Welcome to you both.


MARTIN: Mara, I'd like to start with you. Just listening to those voices we just heard, it's clear Ebola has become a political issue, at least the Republicans are trying to make it one. How have Democrats responded?

LIASSON: Well, Democrats are echoing the same criticisms, especially Democrats who are in tight reelection campaigns like Kay Hagan in North Carolina or Michelle Nunn in Georgia. They're also calling for a travel ban. They know the public is for this. Sixty-seven percent in a recent Washington Post poll said they wanted a travel ban. There are some Democrats that are blaming Republicans for cutting the CDC budget. Other Democrats are raising questions about why don't we have a Surgeon General? And that's because Republicans have blocked the president's nominee for Surgeon General because of his opinions on gun control.

MARTIN: OK, so any chance of this actually affecting the midterms in a couple weeks?

LIASSON: Yes. That's why Democrats are so worried. First of all, this comes at a very sensitive political time. This is further battering the president's approval ratings, which are already hovering around 40 percent - that's pulling down Democrats. Not unlike the crisis with ISIS or the Ukraine or the Middle East, all of this takes away Democrats' ability to focus on the issues they want to focus on. It puts the focus back on the administration. And it makes it easier for Republicans to push their narrative of the - an incompetent administration. And one Democratic pollster told me that in focus groups she conducted recently, Ebola is the top concern of voters. And that just shows you how even if this isn't a - in other words, the political crisis is moving a lot faster than the public health crisis.

MARTIN: Well, let's turn to Texas, which has become the frontline for the Ebola crisis in this country. Jacquielynn Floyd, how is this playing down there? Gov. Rick Perry just returned from a long planned trip to Europe.


MARTIN: How has he been positioning himself in all this?

FLOYD: Well, actually, Gov. Perry has been, for Gov. Perry, fairly restrained, I think, in what he has had to say. He has certainly come out in favor of the travel ban, but then so has virtually every other politician in the country, it seems, this week, including even our Democratic gubernatorial candidate - Wendy Davis yesterday came out favoring the travel ban. But the issue is so much less abstract and so much more real here in Texas that in the immediate area, the concern is very much still more focused on public health. I think as you broaden out to Austin and obviously when you get to Washington, it is much more political issue.

MARTIN: Mara, as we heard, the GOP was pushing the president on two fronts - to install an Ebola czar and to put a travel ban in place - those calls also being echoed by some Democrats. But why give on to one demand and not the other?

LIASSON: Because they see these two things as completely different. They truly believe that a travel ban is not only impractical - there are no direct flights from West Africa right now. They think number one, it might hurt the chances of getting hold of this disease in Africa. It would make it harder to get medical help and supplies to these West African countries. They simply think it doesn't work. It might make things worse. That's a very hard position to stick to when you have so much of the country wanting a travel ban.

But on the question of the czar, that's something they finally decided was a good idea. They needed and implementation expert, that's what Ron Klain is. He's one of those masters of disaster. He's a crisis response expert. He's not a medical expert. But the administration understands this isn't just a public health crisis, this is a political crisis. The fear of Ebola right now is moving a lot faster than the disease itself, and that's why they needed one person who could just focus on this.

FLOYD: And oversee this.

MARTIN: Jacquielynn, I want to finish with you. From your perspective down in Texas, any chance that careers could be made or broken over this - real briefly?

FLOYD: Well, the careers that are going to be made of broken over this are chiefly at the hospital concern. Presbyterian Hospital was actually a fairly well-regarded - not the best hospital in town, but certainly not the worst. And suddenly it is become, in everyone's mind, the most incompetent hospital in America, which it's not. But that's where your real public relations disaster is and that's where the real struggle is taking place to kind of preserve their reputation.

MARTIN: We will close there. Mara Liasson, political correspondent for NPR. Jacquielynn Floyd, columnist for the Dallas Morning News. Thanks to you both.

LIASSON: Thank you.

FLOYD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.