They say before you have cancer, you have lots of problems; and after you have cancer, you have just one. This year's election is just like that. Before Ebola, we had minimum wage, immigration, student loans, social security, and equal pay. Now we just have Ebola. And if we don't act fast, it's going to cost Democrats the Senate. But it doesn't have to. In fact, Ebola may be the best thing that ever happened to the Democrats. If only they would realize it, before it's too late.
While polls still show a Senate too close to call -- most races are within a point or two -- at this point, it's safe to assume the Democrats will lose. The president is unpopular. The base is uninspired. In midterm elections, conservative voters turn out more and the president's party tends to lose seats. Add in the electoral effects of fear -- studies have shown that when people are scared, they become more conservative -- and a six-seat swing is almost inevitable. ISIS, security breaches at the White House, and Ebola gave the GOP fertile ground to sow their favorite seeds: The world is scary, vote for us. And what's scarier than a rampant infectious disease?
Oh, actually, there is one thing. Republicans. And therein lies the trick. Don't deny the fear, use it. Don't pretend it doesn't exist, blame it on the people who created it. Fear goes to the Republicans. Fear Jiu-Jitsu goes to the Dems.
Our recent ad "Republican Cuts Kill" shows the way. The ad intersperses more than two dozen GOP politicians saying the word "cut" with testimony from top NIH and CDC officials blaming the problems with the Ebola response on budget cuts. We threw in a few dead bodies at the end, lest our point fall victim to subtlety. The response? Pavlovian. RNC Chair, Reince Priebus appeared on Fox and Friends a scant 24 hours after the ad's release, calling it "idiotic" and "dangerous." Tough, right? Wrong. Read the subtext, the head of the GOP was worried enough about an ad blaming GOP cuts for the Ebola virus that he was compelled to use his time on television -- just two weeks before an election -- to denounce it. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and the entire Fox News network joined the chorus condemning the ad and piling on the protests. Out marched the counter-arguments -- that Bush raised the budget of the CDC (true though much of this increase came after 911 and the anthrax scares, and later the Democratic takeover of Congress), or that the agency spent the money it had on the wrong things. Cuts certainly weren't to blame, they said. The ad -- and more importantly -- the message put Republicans on the defense. If we keep them there for the next week, we can win.
It's time to double down on Ebola. Full-scale, no-holds barred, nationwide "Republican Cuts Kill." Your fear is their fault. Play the ad -- or anything like it -- everywhere. And watch the momentum turn on a dime and leave you nine cents change.
Start in North Carolina where Speaker of the NC House Thom Tillis oversaw massive budget cuts to education. Remind Tarheel voters of what they already know -- that Republican Cuts Kill. They kill dreams of a better life that only education can bring. And they kill vaccines that would have been completed were it not for budget cuts demanded by GOP politicians. Take the story to Kansas, where Sam Brownback's cuts killed an economy and use it to exorcise Pat Roberts from the Senate. Move on to Arkansas, where Republican Tom Cotton is facing off against Democrat Mark Pryor. Cotton, a "super conservative" who has made a name for himself by his ideological purity, and who is especially vulnerable to this argument given that he is known for opposing any increase in federal spending even in the midst of disaster. He is one of the very few senators who voted against disaster relief funds in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In his words, "I don't think Arkansas needs to bail out the Northeast." In Iowa, remind voters of Joni Ernst's cheerful commitment to "castrate" the federal government like we did in Republican Cuts Kill Part II: Joni Ernst Wants to Cut. Ask Iowans: do you really want an impotent government in the face of Ebola?
In close races, galvanizing our base is essential. Take Colorado where Democrat Mark Udall is facing off against Cory Gardner. Gardner's extreme positions on women's reproductive rights should make him beatable, but the President's failure to act on immigration has dampened enthusiasm among Hispanic voters. Putting the blame for Ebola where it belongs will energize the liberal base both because it shows them what can happen if they don't vote and because it shows them you're willing to fight. In my entire career in politics, I have never heard such a reaction from Democrats as I did from this ad. The letters and the emails all had one message "Give 'em hell." All of a sudden, someone was fighting and reconnecting Democrats with #whywevote. Democrats may not be satisfied with their lawmakers -- including the president -- but that doesn't mean they want Republicans back in power. Republican cuts are the Democrats' rallying cry this election season.
Even more important than the effects on this election, is the potential this theme has for the Democratic party's long-term prospects. Since Ronald Reagan famously argued that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help," the GOP has been on a 40-year campaign to denigrate government. Democrats have been playing defense, and in their worst moments have given into conservative pressure. Denigrate the government so you can justify underfunding it, so that it doesn't work effectively, so you can denigrate it again, so you can underfund it. The Ebola crisis has brought the results to television screens all over America.
Now is our chance to argue for government -- one that is well-funded and run by people who believe in the critical role it can and must play. Look around, do you see a corporation stepping in to solve the Ebola crisis? The private sector has neither the means nor the incentive to deal effectively with this kind of challenge. Only our public health agencies can bring to bear the resources and personnel needed to contain this outbreak. Additionally, the crisis proves the need for non-military foreign aid. In an increasingly interconnected world, a public health disaster over there is quite likely to come over here. We have always had a vested interest in building adequate public health systems abroad, and now maybe we will have the political will to do it. Effectively dealing with infectious diseases before they can make their way to our shores won't be possible if the 165 members of the Republican Study Committee are allowed to eliminate USAID entirely as they have already endorsed. Instead our goal should be to eliminate those 165 embarrassments from the House of Representatives.
There isn't really any choice -- people are already scared -- and you aren't going to unscare them before the midterms arrive. If you know that fear tends to drive Republicans to vote, then the safe bet would be to assume that the Ebola crisis would be a winner for Republicans. Unless, you can put Republicans on the defensive by pointing out that it was their policies, their priorities, and their obstructionism that left us ill prepared to deal with this outbreak.
If Democrats spend the last week of the campaign ignoring the elephant in the room, they will be crushed by it.