The problem emerged in earnest nearly two weeks ago. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) condemned the Obama administration for failing to appoint an Ebola “czar” to help coordinate U.S. officials’ response. Left unsaid was the fact that Kingston sponsored legislation in 2009 to scrap these “czar” policy coordinators from the executive branch altogether.
A week later, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) wrote a joint letter to President Obama, insisting that the White House name an Ebola czar. In 2009, however, both Moran and Wolf co-sponsored Kingston’s anti-czar legislation.
Yesterday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) joined the parade, making these on-air comments to CNN’s Candy Crowley.
“[F]rom spending time here in Arizona, my constituents are not comforted. There has to be more reassurance given to them. I would say that we don’t know exactly who’s in charge. There has to be some kind of czar.”
This would be the same John McCain who, in May 2009, complained that President Obama had already appointed too many czars. Indeed, the Arizona Republican argued on Twitter that the president “has more czars than the Romanovs – who ruled Russia for 3 centuries.”
There’s more than one angle to this story. The first is the obvious hypocrisy of Republicans who desperately want the president to have fewer czars, except when they want him to have more. There’s also the fact that a U.S. Surgeon General could certainly play a key leadership role at a moment like this, but a wide variety of senators, including McCain, are blocking a qualified nominee.
As for McCain’s observation that “we don’t know exactly who’s in charge,” it’s unclear what McCain means by “we.” Administration officials have already made it quite clear which agencies are focused on responding to the Ebola virus, and Lisa Monaco, a homeland security adviser, is serving as the point person in charge of “interagency response.” McCain should probably know that by now.
But stepping back, all of this is helping expose a related political problem.
Jonathan Bernstein had a great piece on this last week.
The problem with the “czar” flip isn’t hypocrisy; it’s laziness. In their initial assault, Republicans didn’t attack actual presidential overreach; they simply found a word – “czar” – that resonated with talk-show audiences, and spent months repeating it. White House policy coordinators (what “czars” really are) may or may not be good ideas in any particular instance, but there’s nothing wrong in principle with the president designating someone to coordinate policy when an issue spans several overlapping executive branch departments and agencies. That’s one of the functions the Executive Office of the President was created to fulfill. […]The problem with lazy hypocrisy – Republican complaints about presidential tyranny this year were just another version of the old “czar” complaint – is that by pretending that fictional affronts are a big deal, the out-party isn’t exercising its important function of calling out the president for real mismanagement, genuine overreach or actual malfeasance, which occur in every presidency…. The clamor for an Ebola czar reveals not only the insincerity of the anti-czar attacks, but that Republicans wasted an opportunity to make real points about Obama’s presidency by focusing on a bogus complaint.
Agreed. We can have a credible debate about whether the White House needs to appoint an Ebola czar. Administration officials continue to say the existing bureaucratic structure in place is up to the challenge, but if lawmakers want to explore management alternatives, that’s part of routine congressional oversight.
What’s not debatable is the inanity of the GOP whining about czars in the first place. With the benefit of hindsight – and with anti-czar Republicans now clamoring for a new czar – it’s pretty obvious that the right picked this fight in 2009 because conservatives thought it sounded funny. Republicans were looking for an excuse to get hysterical, so they decided “czars” was one of the great political outrages of our time, even though the Bush/Cheney administration relied even more heavily on these policy coordinators, and despite the fact that most Republicans didn’t actually believe their own talking points.