President Obama's choice of veteran Democratic politico Ron Klain to serve as Ebola czar stunned many Republicans. Their first objection is that Klain has no experience in public health or infectious diseases. But in a larger sense, GOP critics see Klain, a former chief of staff for Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden, more as a political operative than a potential leader of the fight against Ebola.
What qualifies Klain for the job, the formal title of which is Ebola Response Coordinator? First, the White House makes no claim of any expertise in health matters. Instead, officials point to Klain's impressive Washington resume — the jobs with Gore and Biden, plus chief of staff for Clinton administration Attorney General Janet Reno and top positions with Senate Democrats.
But those are job titles. What specifically has Klain done in those positions that would prepare him for the Ebola assignment? White House officials cite Klain's work in Biden's office, overseeing the dispensing of billions of federal dollars through the American Recovery Act, better known as the stimulus, as evidence that Klain can handle a problem like Ebola.
"He helped oversee implementation of the Recovery Act, a major interagency and intergovernmental project," wrote White House spokesman Eric Schultz in response to an emailed question. "Under Klain's watch, that team: 1) Met and exceeded the plan for deploying the stimulus on time, in a complex interagency scenario involving almost every agency of the federal government; 2) Operationalized an unprecedented commitment to transparency — quarterly reports on Recovery.gov, overseen by Independent Recovery Transparency and Accountability Board; and 3) Defied expectations for the very low level of fraud — widely acclaimed at the time."
Earlier Friday, the White House published a blog post saying Klain has "extensive experience in overseeing complex governmental operations." Still earlier, liberal blogger Ezra Klein, thought to be close to many Obama White House veterans, including Klain, wrote that "Everyone agreed Klain knew how to run an interagency process."
The stimulus, apparently, is Exhibit A, and perhaps also Exhibit B and Exhibit C, for Klain's ability to run an interagency process and therefore his readiness to serve as Ebola czar.
But citing Klain's stimulus work didn't resolve all questions. "What does Ron Klain know about Ebola?" CNN's Jim Acosta asked White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Friday. Earnest ignored the question — the answer, apparently, is nothing more than anyone else who's following news coverage — but added, "What we were looking for was not an Ebola expert, but rather an implementation expert, and that's what Ron Klain is."
"His area of expertise is in implementation, and that is exactly what is needed," Earnest continued. "We are confident he has all the credentials that we could want."
Republicans on Capitol Hill are far less confident about those credentials. Yes, they might hold lingering feelings about Klain's intensely partisan past — he was point man for Gore in the Florida recount fight of 2000 (a role memorialized in the movie "Recount"). But the larger concern for GOP lawmakers is that the experience the White House cites as expertise — Klain's role in the Recovery Act — is one Hill Republicans view as irrelevant to the job at hand.
"I don't know that I'd point to the stimulus as an example of government problem solving," says a well-connected GOP Hill aide. "Giving away free money is not the same as running a massive public health bureaucracy."
"Helping to dole out billions in often-wasteful pork-barrel spending is not exactly a compelling selling point," says another GOP aide.
Of course, Republicans might be making a mistake in viewing the Ebola czar as an official who will actually fight Ebola. It's possible, perhaps likely, that Klain's position is more political than that. "He'll control the message better than most people would, which is really important from an economic standpoint, from a health standpoint, but it's also important from a political perspective," an anonymous Democratic political operative told the New York Times. "If anybody can get the way this is being reported and discussed under control in a short period of time, he's the one."
And that could well be what the Ron Klain appointment is all about.