Sometimes incompetence gets its due reward. No one has to accuse Barack Obama of spreading the Ebola virus. The incompetence of this administration is there for everyone to see, and suffer. "Leading from behind" works no better against a deadly virus than it has against evil in the Middle East and greedy ambition in Ukraine.
Mr. Obama could reprise George W.'s famous tribute to his director of Katrina relief a decade ago: "You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie!" Michael D. Brown, his hapless director of FEMA, is clearly the model for Tom Frieden, the director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which controls not very much and has prevented none of the anger and frustration rolling down on the heads of the president and his clumsy helpers.
The front page of the New York Daily News, with the rude economy of the tabloids, says it all, with a full-page headline in type as big as a boxcar to accompany a photograph of the president, stricken with the look of a goose that somebody hit on the head with a long-handled spoon: "For God's sake, get a grip."
The president's timid and confused mishandling of the Ebola crisis — and it's a crisis of fear if not yet an authentic crisis of public medicine — is the perfect storm gathering to sink his presidency on the eve of the national midterm elections. Democrats have been hunkering in anticipation of taking losses, but the Ebola scare threatens to make political catastrophe of mere disaster.
Rarely if ever has a presidency dissolved so dramatically, so quickly, and with his approval hovering at 40 percent and threatening to sink lower, Mr. Obama has no capital left if he knew how to spend it. Some of his most loyal followers and reliable liege men won't even admit to having ever voted for him when everybody knows they did. With every new Ebola victim, and Tom Frieden agrees with the logic that there will be more, the prospect grows for hysteria in the absence of strong and confident leadership. No one expects Barack Obama to be reborn as Franklin D. Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, but to be satisfied with Chester Alan Arthur or Jimmy Carter is a lot to ask of a frightened nation.
A new poll by The Washington Post/ABC News, hardly a consortium of the president's critics, finds that only 39 percent of the public sees the Democrats as worthy and reliable, the party's worst showing in 30 years. And the survey was taken before the second Ebola patient took to her sick bed, a patient who had traveled on Frontier Airlines with a fever and with the blessings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the face of this miserable reality, not even Harry Reid expects the Democrats to keep their 55 votes intact in the Senate. The party's wise men are struggling now to believe they might keep 51 seats, or maybe, if "the creek don't rise, the dog don't bark, the cat don't scratch" and fading stars don't fall out of alignment, they can keep "a Biden majority" of 50 seats. The vice president would cast deciding votes. That would keep the Democratic leader in his corner office with a limousine at the curb, but gridlock would grow even tighter and the president would be on a tight leash. Continuing to treat the Constitution as something to wrap fish in would be far more difficult for him.
The arithmetic of a Republican takeover of the Senate is complicated. The party needs to pick up a net of six seats, and the estimates of most of the crystal ball say the pickups will fall between five and eight. Most pundits can identify five — in West Virginia, Montana, South Dakota, Arkansas and Alaska. Louisiana could be the sixth. Republicans in Iowa and Colorado are running far better now than thought only a fortnight ago.
All that assumes that the rest of the hotly contested states — Kentucky, North Carolina and New Hampshire come quickly to mind — will fall into the allotted script. But there's always a surprise or two. To keep the Senate the Democrats must get all the breaks, which is a lot to expect.
If the past is a guide, a wave will break late next week. If it's a wave driven by the Ebola virus and fear of the unknown the Grand Old Party could get as many as 10 seats, which would be grand, indeed. Or not.