Republican presidential candidates John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul take the stage before the Republican presidential debate at the Milwaukee Theatre, Nov. 10, 2015, in Milwaukee.
Photo by Jeffrey Phelps/AP

Failing to rise to the occasion

NBC News’ First Read published an interesting comparison the other day that got me thinking.
Americans are frightened and suspicious of foreigners entering the country from abroad. The political press is blaming President Obama for not doing enough. Rival politicians with presidential ambitions are seizing on the issue.
Sounds like the political aftermath after Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, right? But those same descriptions – fear, suspicion, blame, and political opportunism – apply to what happened just a year ago during the Ebola scare.
Indeed, some of the exact same people who panicked under pressure a year ago are doing the same thing now. In late October 2014, Marco Rubio, for example, said policymakers should ignore the scientists and instead approve his legislation to ban travel from Ebola-stricken African countries to the United States. In November 2015, Rubio is now saying policymakers should ignore the diplomats and punish refugees fleeing terrorist violence.
Last year, Rand Paul’s reaction to the Ebola scare was ridiculous. This year, his reaction to refugees is about as offensive. Last year, Chris Christie boasted about his absurd quarantine policy, which looks even more foolish in hindsight. This year, his flip-flop on refugees – up to and including his fear of toddler orphans – is plainly incoherent.
Part of the concern here is the Republicans’ capacity to be an effective governing party. When was the last time GOP officials, en masse, responded to a crisis in a measured, responsible way? It’s tempting to point to 2008, when Congress tackled a rescue package for the financial industry, but even then Republicans initially killed the legislation because, they said at the time, Nancy Pelosi hurt their feelings.
But I’m also struck by the fact that some of these same officials who’ve responded so poorly to both crises also happen to be running for president of the United States – an office that subjects its occupant to almost unimaginable pressures practically every day.
The broader takeaway should be obvious: when the heat is on, and people are counting on cooler heads to show wisdom and good judgment, there are some political leaders who’ve demonstrated an ability to show grace under fire. And then there are the folks who have a track record of letting their fears get the better of them.
Americans tend not to like the fact that we have an exceedingly long presidential election cycle, and while I’m not unsympathetic, the benefit of a protracted process is that we have an opportunity to learn quite a bit about the candidates, beyond just their positions on the issues.
When the going gets tough, and the tough curl up into a ball and start crying, that’s good information for voters to have before Election Day.