The politicization of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during Donald Trump's presidency was staggering. The CDC has long served as an international gold standard, but in 2020, when the agency was needed most, Republican officials politically intervened in science in indefensible ways.
At the time, GOP officials in Congress expressed complete indifference. It's not that Republican lawmakers participated in the politicization of the CDC, so much as they saw what Team Trump was doing and didn't care.
Now that Team Trump has been voted out of office, congressional Republicans have decided to take a keen interest in the CDC -- though not in a constructive way. "Has there ever been an institution in American public life that has more discredited itself more rapidly than the CDC?" Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) asked during floor remarks last week, condemning the agency's latest mask guidance amidst rising COVID-19 infections.
The Texan added, "A year and a half ago, the CDC was one of the most respected medical and scientific organizations on the face of the planet. Today, the CDC has willingly allowed itself to be politicized to behave as an arm of the DNC. And their credibility is in tatters. It is a joke."
It was a curious attack for all sorts of reasons. For example, it's unclear why Cruz didn't care when the CDC was actually being politicized by Trump appointees. The senator also offered no proof to substantiate the bizarre conspiracy theory, alleging that somehow the agency is secretly aligned with the Democratic National Committee.
But as Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) explained late last week, there's a deeper problem.
"The political agenda at the CDC that Republicans allege is a fiction. It's constructed out of thin air. And it's frankly an insult to the thousands of dedicated non-political, public health professionals at the CDC, who just go to work every day trying to keep Americans safe. These aren't politicians -- these are epidemiologists and scientists and doctors who've worked their entire lives trying to keep this country safe. I'm not saying they get it right every time. I've criticized many of the decisions made by the CDC during the pandemic. It's okay to criticize their decisions. But to claim that they are all corrupt. They're these politically controlled hacks. That's an outrage."
The Connecticut Democrat added, in reference to Cruz's speech from Thursday, "[R]hetoric like that is going to get people killed. Because we are still in the middle of the epidemic. And what anti-CDC Republicans are doing through these attacks on our public health agencies is to intentionally undermine people's faith in the nation's preeminent public health institutions right at the moment where we need people to believe in them."
Murphy concluded, "Don't come to the Senate floor and make things up. Don't destroy people's reputations and careers with wild unsubstantiated allegations about political motivations. The CDC doesn't get it right 100% of the time, but they don't have some secret political agenda. But the more people believe that they do, the less likely it is that people will follow their recommendations the 90-95% of the time that they do get it right. And that will guarantee that this virus never disappears."
It's reminiscent of the right's attack on independent news organizations: "the media" keeps reporting information many conservatives don't like, so they've launched an expansive effort to convince their allies not to trust journalists -- because they're part of a nefarious political scheme intended to undermine the Republican agenda.
As the nation confronts an intensifying COVID-19 crisis, the message is eerily similar: public health officials are releasing information many conservatives don't like, so they've launched an expansive effort to convince their allies not to trust scientists and agencies like the CDC -- because they're also part of a nefarious political scheme intended to undermine the Republican agenda.
The fact that the campaign appears to be having the intended effect, putting Americans at greater risk in the process, adds injury to insult -- in a rather literal sense.