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Opinion: Uproar Over Ebola Quarantine Plays to Christie’s Political Strength

Crisis gives governor the opportunity to play favorite role of resolute, no-nonsense elected leader

carl golden
Carl Golden

He’s neither physician nor scientist, but Gov. Christie was quick to grasp the deep apprehension and fear over the potential for the deadly Ebola virus to spread, and he moved to draw a sharp contrast between his administration and what he alleged was a lack of national leadership to protect the public.

His order to impose a 21-day quarantine on anyone entering the state from West Africa who’d been exposed to Ebola virus sufferers there was immediately denounced as an overreach unsupported by any medical or scientific evidence.

He was criticized by the Obama administration and officials of the Centers for Disease Control, threatened with a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, and accused of holding a nurse captive in a Newark hospital because she was suspected of being exposed to the virus while working in one of the affected nations.

The nurse was released from the hospital following a negative finding in a test for Ebola and returned to her home in Maine. While hospitalized, she was unsparing in her criticism of the governor and said she was seriously considering legal action against him, claiming she was held against her will and subjected to less than ideal hospital conditions despite exhibiting no signs she’d been infected with the virus.

The uproar is precisely the kind of combat Christie relishes. Unlike his New York counterpart, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who initially joined in the mandatory quarantine effort, Christie has not budged.

He hadn’t, he insisted, backtracked or reversed himself by permitting the nurse’s discharge, arguing that there was no reason for a further quarantine since she’d been tested and declared healthy.

He said his original quarantine order would remain in place unchanged and that anyone arriving in New Jersey from West Africa who had been exposed to the virus while there would be isolated in a hospital for 21 days. New Jersey residents, he said, would be confined to their homes for the same period.

He’s returned his critics’ fire, portraying himself as standing resolutely on the side of protecting the public from exposure to a horrific disease with an extraordinarily high mortality rate.

He went so far as to predict on national television that his forced quarantine program would soon become national policy. That’s not likely, given the position of the Obama administration that its response would be ruled by science, not political pressure.

For Christie, though, the controversy has elevated him to a level where he’s debating directly with the president of the United States over what has clearly become the most dominant issue in the country. Going toe-to-toe with President Obama over dealing with arguably the greatest public health threat since the 1918 influenza epidemic raises the governor’s national profile and draws increased attention to his potential presidential candidacy.

It has given him an opportunity to ratchet up his criticism of the president as a failed leader -- a theme he’s pounded relentlessly on his national tour on behalf of gubernatorial and congressional candidates -- while reasserting his willingness to act decisively in the higher interest of protecting the public.

The environment was ripe for the action Christie took. The Obama administration was under considerable criticism for responding belatedly and timidly to the threat, and the CDC was forced to admit it made numerous mistakes -- such as permitting a nurse with virus symptoms to board a commercial airline flight. Public confidence in the CDC’s ability to deal with the looming crisis plummeted. The public no longer believed the CDC’s assurances, backing it into a defensive corner -- the first sign it was losing the public relations war.

Christie came across as seizing the initiative, acting forcefully while the federal level dilly-dallied, and brushing aside the concerns raised by those in the healthcare field that doctors and nurses badly needed in West Africa would refuse to travel there to help if they faced a mandatory quarantine upon their return to the United States.

He dismissed those who argued that his actions violated individual constitutional rights, insisting that his sworn obligation to protect the public health took precedence over the inconvenience endured by a few people.

By his directive, Christie leaped back into the center of the ring, trading roundhouse rights with bureaucrats, elected officials and the media over an emotional and hotly-debated issue. It is a familiar role for him and one he clearly enjoys.

Other than describing the by now well-known symptoms of Ebola, he’s avoided pronouncements on the complex medical and treatment issues involved. He’s kept the discussion on his duty to protect the people of New Jersey, ground on which he not only is quite comfortable and confident but which benefits him politically as well.

It’s yet another indication of Christie’s ability to position himself as a strong leader, taking charge and refusing to flinch from what he perceives to be his obligation even in the face of heavy criticism.

One need look back no farther than October 2012, when he led the state’s response to the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Sandy, including a public embrace of President Obama, an act which infuriated the Republican establishment.

It was the president’s first chief of staff whose motto was: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Could be that Christie listened.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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