We need an Ebola czar, apparently. It "may make sense," President Barack Obama announced on Thursday night. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) agreed, calling on the administration to appoint someone like Colin Powell to manage the response to the deadly virus in the United States—five years after pushing legislation that would have prohibited the White House from appointing such czars. If it's a czar they want, it's a czar they must have. By Friday morning, we'd seen the white smoke: the President tapped Ron Klain, Vice President Joe Biden's former chief of staff, to head the response.
But are czars any better than anyone else at responding to and containing outbreaks of infectious disease? If history is a guide, probably not:
Ivan the Terrible: Kind of incompetent, as the name suggests. When the bubonic plague killed 10,000 people in the city of Novgorod, triggering civil unrest, Ivan responded by sending his vicious secret police, the Oprichniki, to burn down the town and kill the inhabitants. Yikes.
Catherine the Great: Although more popular than Ivan and largely successful in her aim of expanding the empire's land holdings, Russia's greatest czar was helpless in the face of the plague of 1771. Dissatisfaction with Catherine's handling of the outbreak, which killed more people in Moscow than the Black Death, resulted in the Moscow Plague Riot of 1771, during which time protesters assassinated an archbishop in the Russian Orthodox Church.
Peter the Great: A real can-do spirit—just look at that mustache! When his soldiers contracted plague during a campaign in the Baltic, Peter ordered them to fall back and then took aggressive measures to prevent a full-fledged outbreak. "Unlike earlier outbreaks, when no medical assistance had been provided, Peter took a more active view and sent Dr. Christian Wiel to supervise anti-plague measures," wrote John T. Alexander, in his comprehensive study, Bubonic Plague in Early Modern Russia: Public Health and Urban Disaster. Historians credit Peter with nationalizing the response to disease outbreaks and investing new resources in medical institutions. But that didn't stop the disease from spreading east.
Nicholas II: Nicholas is known mostly for being deposed during the Russian Revolution, but before he was executed he also proved himself largely incapable of responding to a string of cholera epidemics in the city of Saratov, even after a similar outbreak in the city during the Crimean War less than two decades earlier. The historian Charlotte Henze noted "huge gaps between the legislation of public health measures and their actual implementation."
Oh no he didn't! KHSB Kansas City reported on Wednesday that Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) skipped a Senate hearing on the Ebola virus last month, even while attempting to use the West African epidemic as a campaign wedge issue. This is part of a trend. On Monday, the Topeka Capital-Journalreported that Roberts had also "skipped the committee's hearings on avian flu in 2005 and 2006," but "did author a newspaper editorial in 2005 explaining why he was taking 'the threat of the bird flu very seriously.'"
The attack cuts across party lines. In July, the conservative Concerned Veterans for America released an ad attacking Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), who is running for Senate, for skipping 76 percent of his full committee meetings. In North Carolina, Republican Thom Tillis attacked Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan for missing a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on ISIS. "While ISIS grew, Obama did nothing—Sen. Hagan did cocktails," one ad warned. (Note: "Doing cocktails" is not a thing; cocktails are not cocaine.) In New Hampshire, former GOP Sen. Scott Brown hit Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen for missing a hearing on ISIS. Shaheen, in turn, hit Brown for missing hearings on border security.
If only any of it mattered.
There's much to criticize about Roberts, who broke his own term limits pledge and has largely forsaken Kansas to establish permanent residence in Northern Virginia. But when it comes to committee attendance, he's hardly an outlier—drop by a congressional hearing sometime and see for yourself. And maybe that's not such a bad thing. The hearings candidates are hammered for skipping are long, tedious, redundant, and anachronistic. Far from a roll-up-your-sleeves exercise in cross-examination and investigation, the Washington committee hearing boils down to a simple ritual. Members of Congress are given a short amount of time to demonstrate their understanding of an issue, produce a compelling sound bite for the folks back home, and move the conversation forward with a question.
As a result, the hearing room isn't where business gets done in Washington; it's just where members go to grandstand. (They even let Steve Stockman talk at these things.) Hearings' subject matter reflects this. The 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, which has become a rallying cry on the right, has been the subject of 13 hearings, and an elephant in the room at countless others. That House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing Braley was hammered for skipping? He missed it to attend a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing…on Fast and Furious, another favorite subject of the fever swamps. Without Hermione Granger's time-turner, it would have been difficult to attend both.
But behind these political hits is a certain dishonesty. If Roberts (or Braley or Brown or Hagan or Shaheen, for that matter) is half as bumbling and incompetent as his opponents make him out to be, the last thing he should be doing is meddling in the affairs of government. Senator, get thee to a fundraiser!
With Election Day less than a month away, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is hitting the campaign trail to stump for Republican candidates. On Wednesday he'll be in Virginia with Senate candidate Ed Gillespie and congressional hopeful David Brat. He'll be in New Hampshire on Thursday with former Sen. Scott Brown. He's been in North Carolina with Rep. Walt Jones and Senate nominee Thom Tillis, and Kansas with Sen. Pat Roberts and Gov. Sam Brownback.
But for Paul, fall is about something more than just laying the groundwork for a 2016 presidential campaign. It's turtleneck season.
He's taken his licks in the past. An otherwise flattering profile in Vogue mocked his "dad jeans" and "notorious sartorial taste." That's one way of looking at it. Another—more accurate—way of looking at it is that Rand Paul is the leading fashion visionary of DC, nay, the world. The Nebuchadnezzar of Normcore, Sultan of the Sartorial, the Thelonius of Threads.
Here's a quick guide.
Pleated khakis, blue-gray Polo Ralph Lauren sweater, black turtleneck, in October 2010:
Billy Suratt/Apex MediaWire/ZUMA
Black blazer, black turtleneck, button, January 2012:
Blazer, black turtleneck, Ray-Bans. Burger by In-N-Out. En route to the Reagan library in 2013:
Olive-green sweater vest, black turtleneck, button, while discussing the mythical NAFTA Superhighway in Montana, winter 2008:
Mitch McConnell came prepared with a soundbite. The Affordable Care Act, the Republican Senate minority leader declared during a debate Monday, is "the worst piece of legislation in the last half-century," and needed to be pulled out "by the roots." But when it came to actually getting rid of the law—specifically Kynect, his state's popular new insurance exchange, and the associated expansion of Kentucky's Medicaid rolls—McConnell's tough talk began to fade.
"With regard to Kynect, it's a state exchange, they can continue it if they'd like to," he said. He went on: "With regard to the Medicaid expansion, that’s a state decision, the states can decide whether to expand Medicaid or not." When asked, once more, if he supported the state’s decision to create Kynect and expand Medicaid, McConnell finally conceded, "Well that's fine, yeah. I think it's fine to have a website."
McConnell, one of his party's loudest voices against Obamacare, could barely put together a sentence when pressed on the specifics of what he'd do about it. And he isn't alone. At a Senate debate in Arkansas on Monday, GOP Rep. Tom Cotton, who is challenging Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, talked tough about repealing "Obamacare," but when asked directly, declined to say whether his state's version of Medicaid expansion, known as the "private option," ought to get the boot. (In not answering the question, he did manage to say "Obama" 13 times in two minutes.) This has been Cotton's approach to the question for months now, and it's not hard to see why he's so cautious—the private option was approved by a Republican-controlled state legislature and even has the backing of his party's gubernatorial nominee, former Rep. Asa Hutchinson.
And in Iowa on Saturday, GOP state Sen. Joni Ernst, who is seeking the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Tom Harkin, was asked by a man who had received insurance through the Affordable Care Act about how she'd propose to keep him insured after the law is repealed. She ignored the question.
The GOP is still poised to win big in November. McConnell, Cotton, and Ernst all lead in the polls. But four years after the passage of Obamacare, Republicans are finding it harder and harder to say what they really think about it.
Larry Pressler, who's running as an independent in South Dakota's three-way race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, has averaged around 23 percent of the vote in polls of the contest, which could determine control of the Senate in 2015. With Election Day less than a month away, former Republican Gov. Mike Rounds and Democrat Rick Weiland are both hoping to siphon off support from the third-party entry. And Pressler, who represented South Dakota in the Senate as a Republican from 1979 to 1997, is beginning to take his lumps. On Friday, Politicoreported that he lists his primary residence in Washington, DC. But Pressler isn't just a casual DC resident—he's a self-described townie who briefly floated a run for mayor. Here's the Associated Press in 1998, on Pressler's bid to replace Democrat Marion Barry:
Pressler, now a lobbyist, was not immediately available for comment.
But he told Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, that he has written a three-point agenda, including a private-school voucher program and a "real tax cut" to stimulate economic development in Washington.
"I have lived in DC since 1971, longer than anyone else who's running," Pressler said.
Despite hailing from a state that has relatively few blacks, Pressler told the newspaper said he could connect with Washington's blacks. The district is 65 percent black.
"I have a lot of African American friends," he said.
That's sort of the Trinity of archival dirt—a lobbyist epithet, an affirmation of DC residency, and an awkward boast about black friends. You don't see it very often.
Pressler quickly gave up on the idea of running for mayor, but not before the Washington City Paper's Michael Schaffer dug up this exquisite anecdote about the former senator:
Marching out of a committee hearing a couple years ago, Pressler mistook a closet door for the exit. After initially trying to wait out his colleagues, he finally realized that the hearing wasn't going to end any time soon. He walked back out of the closet, waved as if he'd been talking to someone inside, and left the chamber.