This Talking Points Memo headline—"Ernst Says It's Reporter's 'Opinion' One Person Has Ebola In America"—captures an amusing campaign trail exchange between Iowa GOP Senate candidate Joni Ernst and Esquire political writer Charlie Pierce. In an attempt to squirm out of an uncomfortable line of questioning, Ernst did indeed say that the number of people in America with Ebola is a matter of opinion, not fact.
But all politicians occasionally blow off a tough line of questioning by thanking the reporter for their opinion. The truly shocking part is what happened next.
Ernst went on to issue the following critique of President Obama’s Ebola response: "What he can do is make sure that all of those agencies are coordinating together and make sure that he is sharing that information with the American people, that he cares about their safety."
“You don’t think he does?” Pierce asked, according to a recording of the exchange.
"I don't know that he does,” Ernst replied. “He hasn't demonstrated that.”
Either Ernst genuinely believes Obama’s indifferent to the country’s safety, and the safety of Ebola patients, real and potential; or she’s willing to say that to advance a generic talking point about Obama’s leadership.
I don’t think there’s a problem per se with questioning a politician's commitment to the public’s wellbeing. The conservatives who campaign to discourage Affordable Care Act enrollment and the Republicans blocking Medicaid expansion in twenty-odd states are being insanely reckless with people’s lives, and nobody who cares should shy away from making that point for fear of being rude.
But if you’re going to make that point, you better be able to back it up. If there’s a more dubious claim in U.S. politics right now than that Obama doesn’t care about the Ebola risk or the safety of Ebola patients, I can’t think of it.