Does Ebola require a coordinator?

Catch of the Day: Long Live the Czars

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

A Catch to Steve Benen who notes that some Republicans are demanding a White House czar to coordinate the government's response to Ebola.

Yes, those are the same Republicans who in the first years of Barack Obama's presidency suddenly decided that "czars" were an un-American form of tyranny. In fact, Benen points out that one of the Republicans who called for an Ebola czar over the weekend, Representative Jack Kingston, had introduced anti-czar legislation in 2009.

I don't consider hypocrisy much of a political sin. That is, I expect the Senate majority to embrace efforts to reduce minority obstruction and for the minority to tout the filibuster as the foundation of American democracy, even if the same senators took the opposite position when their roles were reversed. Both points of view are legitimate, and I see no problem with a flip when control of the Senate changes.

Similarly, I expect the out-party to worry about presidential overreach. That's healthy; the president's party is going to be slow to criticize its leader, so criticism from the opposition is helpful.

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.

That doesn't mean there's nothing to criticize: Perhaps there are coordinators for the wrong issues, or money and staff time devoted to policy making in stagnant areas because of bureaucratic stubbornness. And czars can be appointed to give the appearance of action, when there's no policy change (and the coordinators don't actually coordinate anything).

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. Apparently, real affronts aren't necessary to initiate the cycle of Republican accusations, amplification by the party-aligned media and enthusiastic approval from the Republican rank and file.

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.

And: Nice catch!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net