GWEN IFILL: News everywhere you look, from Ebola to same-sex marriage, from memoir politics to Senate politics. We’ll cover it all tonight on “Washington Week.”
THOMAS FRIEDEN, M.D. (director, Centers for Disease Control): (From videotape.) We have to work now so that this is not the world’s next AIDS.
MS. IFILL: The Ebola panic – how the U.S. is stepping in to stop its spread.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) We’re not going to compromise the health and safety of our armed services, but what’s true is we have unique capabilities that nobody else has.
MS. IFILL: More than 4,000 dead in West Africa as the world braces for more.
At the Supreme Court, the day the court stepped out of the same-sex marriage debate, paving the way for legalization in as many as 30 states.
WOMAN: (From videotape.) It won’t be long before the whole country recognizes that all families deserve all equal rights all the time.
MS. IFILL: But is the debate ending, or taking on a new form?
Leon Panetta, former top aide to the president, directs pointed criticism at the man he once served.
FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: (From videotape.) It is an unprecedented set of threats that are out there. This is not a time to kind of get in the trenches and not say anything.
MS. IFILL: Plus the topsy-turvy Senate midterms – how unlikely candidates could be changing the map.
Covering the week: Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for Real Clear Politics; Pete Williams, justice correspondent for NBC News; Gloria Borger, chief political analyst at CNN; and Karen Tumulty, national political reporter for The Washington Post.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
MS. IFILL: Good evening.
The U.S. government is struggling tonight to do its part to curb not only the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, but also the outbreak of Ebola panic here at home. The disease claimed its first victim this week in Dallas. And although no one has yet contracted it here, new security restrictions are in place tonight at five big airports, at the nation’s hospitals, and at the Centers for Disease Control. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell.
HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SECRETARY SYLVIA BURWELL: (From videotape.) The numbers are going to increase before we can get to a leveling-off point. But right now what is most important is that every day those on-the-ground efforts, that there is urgency. It is about (days ?).
MS. IFILL: Is this an all-hands-on-deck effort, kind of crisis here and abroad, Alexis?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: In the United States, I think, in a word, the answer, at least this week, has been yes. And what’s been interesting, I think, in what we’ve seen in the week is the two sides of this. As you point out, the president and the administration are working very hard to keep the level of anxiety in a controlled state in the United States, with just one – obviously with just one Ebola-infected patient in Dallas; talking to local and state health and officials to try to get them all ramped up, to be able to be prepared.
The airport, which was not something that the administration initially wanted to do, that the World Health Organization was not keen on, but the concern was that, in Congress and elsewhere, there was maybe a call for, you know, rolling those drawbridges up, right, to keep the travel – put a travel ban in place.
So the administration has been very concerned about the preparedness and the anxiety.
Internationally, what we’ve seen from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at the World Health Organization, the U.N., some of the sound that you played, is a level of anxiety, really ramping up the rhetoric about what’s happening in the continent of Africa.
MS. IFILL: (I think ?) back to bird flu, swine flu –
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes.
MS. IFILL: - that never really, in the end, posed that great a threat here, but which was causing – was ravaging other places. And at some point the reaction always seems to be just do something.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Just do something. Dr. Frieden from the CDC was talking about the concern about this being like AIDS. But keep in mind, we’ve been dealing with AIDS for decades, and 39 million people have died from AIDS. And it’s still here. It’s still with us.
So as you point out, the balance here is the administration and health officials trying to remind people in the United States and in the developed world this is not something that we’re going to see as a massive epidemic. But what Dr. Frieden is talking about is the whole – you know, these countries in Africa – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – they face this risk of their health system being wiped out, their economies being wiped out, the (livelihoods ?) of these countries, and then the spread of it.
GLORIA BORGER: But, you know, in this country, I think people look at the response in Dallas and they go –
MS. SIMENDINGER: Absolutely.
MS. BORGER: - wait a minute, that was full of a lot of holes. And that’s what makes everybody so nervous.
MS. SIMENDINGER: So one of the things that was uncovered this week is that Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian national who died after seeking care in Dallas, it turned out that when he did come to the hospital, he had a temperature of 103 degrees.
MS. BORGER: Right.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And his family was able to get the health records. The Associated Press and other news organizations saw it. And you can see in the records the doctors’ description. So you’re absolutely right that what happened there at that hospital – and the hospital has changed its story about what has happened – is a lesson that, at least here in Washington, the folks at the White House are very much – (inaudible) – trying to use that to spread the message, get ready.
PETE WILLIAMS: I know –
KAREN TUMULTY: But –
MR. WILLIAMS: Go ahead.
MS. TUMULTY: But besides, you know, that you’re going to be screening people at these five airports, this is a disease that has an incubation period of 20, 21 days. So we’re taking people’s temperature as they’re coming through the airport. What, effectively, are you going to accomplish by that? Is it going to actually stop the spread, or is it just going to make people feel like something’s being done?
MS. SIMENDINGER: It’s a great question, because the government says that about 150 folks travel from these countries, the affected countries in West Africa, a day into the United States through these major airports mostly, and that most of them, as we’ve seen at least in the last two months, the folks who have traveled have been – there’s been exit screening of them when they’ve departed, and that there has been a sweep that has captured maybe 77 or netted 77 people who seemed ill or might have had symptoms, and none of them had Ebola.
So – and the only case we’ve seen in the United States, he had no signs coming into the United States. So he was the one who went right past the disease detectives. So this is very much, I think, an effort, at least the way it’s been described at the CDC, to try to allay anxiety, to add this layer. Great Britain has added this also in the major thruways in Great Britain. And it may also hold back this push for the travel ban.
MR. WILLIAMS: I was just going to ask you very briefly, back to Dallas for a second, is the concern that they released him, that that jeopardized his care or that it put him back into the community, where he could infect potentially others?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Both. So the discussion has been if he had been assessed correctly and hospitalized immediately, it would have cut down on the range of individuals he was then in contact with as an Ebola-infected patient. The question that’s also being asked is would he have lived?
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s move on now. Thank you, Alexis.
I have a hard time remembering the last time the Supreme Court’s refusal to step into a legal issue has had such immediate effect. That’s what happened this week when the high court chose the first Monday in October, its traditional return to the bench, to announce that in five cases it would allow states to decide for themselves whether people of the same sex should be allowed to marry. And late today the court allowed marriages to begin in Idaho and North Carolina as well, which means a majority of states now have marriage bans that have been declared unconstitutional.
Is that right, Pete?
MR. WILLIAMS: That’s right. And, by the way, I asked a number of Supreme Court experts today if they could remember a time when the Supreme Court –
MS. IFILL: Yeah?
MR. WILLIAMS: - passing on something had such a big effect. And they said they couldn’t either. But it’s not over, because, first of all, we have these aftershocks. It’s been like covering an election today, waiting for all these different states to chime in.
The second thing is that the Supreme Court – you know, we had this tidal wave of rulings in the past year and a half, and they were all building up. But then there were holds placed on all of them to give the Supreme Court, we thought, the last word. Well, what they did Monday is say we’re not going to have involvement. That dissolved all those stays. So now all those court rulings that were waiting kick into effect. And that’s why we’ve had this big effect.
The same-sex marriage thing has moved so fast. Just by contrast, one week ago viewers of your program were watching while it was legal in 19 states. Now it’s 28. And it could be 29 before we’re off the air. But it’s also not over for a much bigger reason, and that’s this. The Supreme Court, in the cases that it refused to take, the lower courts, the appeals courts, had all reached the same conclusion and said that a state cannot constitutionally ban same-sex marriage.
If we get a contrary ruling from an appeals court – and we have three that we haven’t heard from yet – if they say, oh, yeah, states can ban it, then, in fact, I think the Supreme Court would take this case.
MS. BORGER: Well, American public opinion, though, over the last sort of four or five years, has shifted so dramatically on the question of same-sex marriage. I mean, when Proposition 8 first became a court issue, most – the majority of the country was against same-sex marriage. Now a majority of the country supports same-sex marriage.
It seems to me that the court is sort of saying, OK, we’re just going to let the country decide this one. We’re not going to do the heavy lift.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, that’s one possibility. You know, we just don’t know why they didn’t do anything, why they took a pass in these cases.
MS. BORGER: Right.
MR. WILLIAMS: It could be nine justices, four of them each side yes or not. They don’t know where Justice Kennedy is. They didn’t want to take a chance. It could also be that, in the old-fashioned way, they just don’t take cases when there isn’t a circuit split. And there wasn’t one here. And those who favor same-sex marriage could well be looking at your calculus. We could be up to 35 states here pretty soon by the time the court may get around to taking this again.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Pete, can you go back and explain to us why, then, this was a surprise? Just your explanation, right?
MS. IFILL: Yeah. Yeah, you told us we were going to see a big Supreme Court case.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Right.
MR. WILLIAMS: (Laughs.) Actually, I had a bet with Joan Biskupic on your program last year, and I said this – I was one of the few who thought they wouldn’t take this if there was no circuit split.
MS. IFILL: You’re so – you’re brilliant.
MR. WILLIAMS: But I was still surprised. (Laughter.) And here’s why we thought it was a surprise. Number one, we had all these cases come in where people on both sides, both the people who oppose and the states defending their same-sex marriage ban, said please take my case. So all the parties were unanimous in saying take it.
Secondly, it does have an air of inevitability about it. Everybody realizes that ultimately the Supreme Court is probably going to have to take it. So what was the point of waiting? We just don’t know the answer.
MS. TUMULTY: Well, but as Gloria had mentioned, public opinion is coming this way. And the last time, or one big time when the Supreme Court did get ahead of social change was Roe v. Wade.
MR. WILLIAMS: Right.
MS. TUMULTY: And, you know, the outcome of that was a social battle that still goes on. Was that perhaps part of the reasoning was to sort of let this proceed and not get ahead of it?
MR. WILLIAMS: I suspect, for some justices, it was. You know, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made the speech at a law school just before the court came into effect where she sort of seemed to say that, that there’s really no point for us to get into it now. However, you know, it isn’t over.
It does seem, though, that the longer it goes, it does seem to be going in pretty much one direction. And if the court were to come now and say, OK, now we’re going to decide whether you can have same-sex marriage, after permitting all these other marriages to happen, that would be a pretty weird thing if they suddenly said, well, before we let you get married, guess what, you’re not married.
MS. IFILL: But, you know, advocates for gay marriage have said that they’re still not happy with this outcome –
MR. WILLIAMS: Yeah.
MS. IFILL: - because it still leaves in place a pretty patchwork - every state can do whatever it wants to do or every circuit can do whatever it wants to do kind of deal. So that is also another – that’s also room for the challenge to be forced, right?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, there are a lot of people saying, you know, this is the Supreme Court’s job to make these big decisions. However, the Supreme Court likes to think of itself as not the place where you go to get justice but the place where you go to have the law ironed out so it’s uniform around the country. And all the cases they’ve had so far, all the appeals court rulings, have been the same. So one way to look at this is what was there for the Supreme Court to do.
MS. BORGER: But didn’t we see that with interracial marriage, et cetera, et cetera? You know, the court was out there, did the heavy lift on that, and then public opinion followed.
MR. WILLIAMS: The Supreme Court took a pass on interracial marriage. You know, a lot of people have been making that parallel. The Supreme Court took a pass on gay marriage. It took a pass on interracial marriage until more and more of the states came around. By the time they decided Loving versus Virginia in 1967, there were very few states left.
MS. BORGER: So is that the model, do you think?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, some people think it might be.
MS. IFILL: Well, we’ll be watching to see, because it’s – I don’t think – we know it’s not over. Thanks, Pete.
MR. WILLIAMS: You bet.
MS. IFILL: Full disclosure: Everyone at this table has met or covered Leon Panetta, the former lawmaker, CIA director and Pentagon secretary. He’s been around so long, how could we not have? (Laughter.)
For that reason, perhaps, his praise, and even more so his criticism, has caused quite a stir here in Washington. Gloria Borger talked to him about his new book, “Worthy Fight.” Part of his critique is the president’s handling of the new war against ISIS.
MR. PANETTA: (From videotape.) I take the position that when you’re commander in chief, that you really ought to keep all options on the table, to be able to have the flexibility to do what is necessary in order to defeat this enemy. But to make airstrikes work, to be able to do what you have to do, you don’t just send planes in and drop bombs.
MS. IFILL: So, Gloria, after having read the book and interviewed Leon Panetta, what is your sense of why he’s saying all this now?
MS. BORGER: He’s trying to sell books, number one. And I think, in talking to him, that he wants to give leadership advice to the president, to the country, to the world. You know, this is a man who’s been in public service for 40 years, and he has a lot to say that’s positive about President Obama, the man who made the decision to go after Osama bin Laden, which he called a gutsy decision. There were a lot of people around the table who disagreed with him on that go order, but he did it.
With the president, whom he feels has not done the right thing with the Syria chemical weapons issue, with keeping a residual force in Iraq, and I think what he’s trying to do in this book is talk about leadership. When you talk to people in the White House, they’ll say it’s a betrayal of them, that he’s talking a good game now, but that’s not what he sounded like when he was back in the White House.
And what he said when I asked him whether it was a betrayal or you should be doing this, or Joe Biden said couldn’t he have waited till the guy was out of office, his answer was you don’t put a hold on history.
MS. IFILL: Except that a lot of people do. I think about what happened after George W. Bush left office –
MS. BORGER: That’s right.
MS. IFILL: - when we got memoirs from Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. And they pointed fingers at each other, but not at the president and not while he was still in office.
MS. BORGER: And then this president has had Bob Gates. He’s had Hillary Clinton. But you’ll remember George Stephanopoulos wrote a book about Bill Clinton. So, you know, I think this isn’t unprecedented, but I think that you have two people on the national security team, Gates and Panetta, who have both come out with –
MS. IFILL: With the same critique, basically.
MS. BORGER: Making the same critique. And it’s really about leadership, I think.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Gloria, when I was a young reporter on Capitol Hill and you were on the Hill –
MS. BORGER: (Laughs.)
MR. WILLIAMS: You’re both still young.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yeah. OK, yeah.
MS. BORGER: I love you, Pete. (Laughs.)
MS. SIMENDINGER: We both remember Leon Panetta from the Hill.
MS. BORGER: How about Karen? She was there too.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And Karen, too, exactly.
MS. IFILL: We were all there.
MS. SIMENDINGER: OK. But what I want to know is, Leon Panetta was talking about Congress and he was comparing President Clinton and President Obama. And it was very interesting. What does he say in the book?
MS. BORGER: So he writes about working for Bill Clinton and the joy in politics that Bill Clinton took. And what he effectively says is, look, Bill Clinton would make any deal with you. And what he was great at was convincing you what he wanted was actually good for you, and that’s why he could cut deals.
His point about this president is that President Obama loves the policy part of it and he’s brilliant at it, but he says the deal-making part of it, the political part of it, not so much. That’s not one of his great skills. And he urges the president, for the next years, if he wants to have a legacy that deals with things like immigration reform, to actually start doing more of that, so perhaps he could get more done.
MS. TUMULTY: So does the White House think this is a problem? And, if so, how are they planning to push back on it?
MS. BORGER: You know, they’re pushing back on it. They like Leon Panetta. They don’t want to overtly sort of attack him. But what they’re saying is, look, he’s talking a different game than he talked when he was in – he supported the president’s policy on not leaving a residual force in Iraq at the time and that he was the good soldier.
You know, when I asked him, did you think about resigning, you know, when you disagreed with the president on all these issues, he said, no, he’s the president of the United States. He makes a decision. You salute and you move on.
Well, it’s very different once you’re out of office. I mean, pretty soon we’re going to have presidents signing, you know, nondisclosure forms for anybody who’s a top adviser. However, don’t forget, in the end, President Obama will write his version of history. Joe Biden will write his version of history. And we’re going to have to compare and contrast.
MS. IFILL: Well, and I have to say that, as Karen pointed out to me today, that Leon Panetta has done a tell-all before when he was working for Richard Nixon. That’s how far back he goes.
MS. BORGER: Very good point. Very good point.
MS. IFILL: Well, we’re a month away from the critical midterm elections. And in many states, voting is already under way. And it turns out the balance of power in the Senate may still be up in the air, thanks to tight races in South Dakota, Kansas, Georgia, North Carolina, and even perhaps Kentucky.
The president is not on the ballot, but he kind of is. Listen to a bit of this week’s North Carolina Senate debate.
(Begin videotaped segment.)
U.S. SENATE CANDIDATE THOM TILLIS (R-NC): Senator Hagan has voted with President Obama 96 percent of the time. She’s served as a rubber stamp for President Obama’s failed policies.
SENATOR KAY HAGAN (D-NC): (From videotape.) I have been ranked the most moderate senator in the country by the nonpartisan National Journal. They rank senators one to 100. I am smack dab in the middle. That means I can work across the aisle with Democrats and Republicans.
(End videotaped segment.)
MS. IFILL: And in Kentucky, the Democrat running against Mitch McConnell won’t even admit she voted for President Obama. Is he the reason things are so tight?
MS. TUMULTY: Absolutely, he’s the reason things are so tight. You know, you listen to the Kay Hagan-Thom Tillis exchange there. It strikes me; I cannot recall an election that has been so generic, where you go from state to state to state and hear exactly the same lines.
The Republican says my opponent voted with President Obama – fill in the number percent of the time. And then the Democrat says, no, no, I’m an independent voice. And besides, that person is too extreme. I mean, the script in every single state appears to be the same. And it is about President Obama.
But another reason things are so close and so hard to figure out what direction they’re going is that the Democrats are relying on a lot of the things that President Obama did in his own campaign to bring out the parts of the electorate that they need, to reach - the sophisticated techniques to reach voters, motivate them, bring them out in places like Colorado, for instance. For the first time, voters are going to have – every single voter will have a ballot mailed to their house. They can sign up and register to vote on the same day as the election.
So it is true, I think, that, you know, for better and worse, and probably more for worse because President Obama is a great weight on these Democratic candidates, it is an election about Barack Obama.
MR. WILLIAMS: And is it mainly “Obamacare,” or is it broader than that?
MS. TUMULTY: It’s much broader than that. I think that all of the things that are roiling the news now have sort of come back as a question of President Obama’s competence. It was the botched rollout of health care. It was the children at the border. It’s ISIS. It’s Ebola. You know, you name it and it all – it is all getting into this narrative. People are anxious.
MS. BORGER: You know, it’s not just in the red states that a lot of these Senate candidates don’t want the president. You were just in Colorado. In Virginia, in Iowa, states where he has been popular, suddenly all these candidates are saying don’t campaign for me.
MS. IFILL: But can I just broaden it beyond that, because sometimes it seems to me it’s also that people are running against Washington. So you have independents suddenly in Kansas all of a sudden coming out of nowhere.
MS. TUMULTY: And South Dakota. I mean –
MS. IFILL: Tell us about South Dakota.
MS. TUMULTY: An extremely red state that was on nobody’s radar screen until this week. And all of a sudden you have Larry Pressler, who used to be a Republican, now running as an independent in South Dakota. That is a three-way race that is extremely close, and so close that the way you can tell that people really take this seriously, the Democrats are putting a million dollars into South Dakota.
MS. BORGER: You know, the question is, will independent voters come out in states like Kansas and states like South Dakota in a midterm election when there’s nobody at the top of the ticket that’s running in a presidential race?
MS. IFILL: Tell us about Kansas.
MS. TUMULTY: And Kansas – now, there’s an interesting situation. There we have an independent candidate running against a Republican, and the Democrat – Pat Roberts, the incumbent – and the Democrat has just dropped out of the race. So presumably all the Democratic votes, to the degree they’re there, will go to the independent, and possibly a lot of Republican votes as well.
And so what you’ve seen is this rescue squad of - every single faction of the Republican Party is there. You’ve got Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Bob Dole. I mean, they are all in there trying to save Pat Roberts.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Karen, for those of us who look at the calendar and hope that maybe this could be over on election night, are we going to be disappointed? Are we going to be watching – will America be seeing this go on for days?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, first of all –
MS. BORGER: I think that would be fun.
MS. TUMULTY: - they could be – they may be counting, you know, ballots in the far-flung precincts of Alaska for weeks. There could be a runoff in Louisiana in December. And here’s another state on the screen - wasn’t there a few weeks ago – Georgia. Georgia is suddenly where we have – it’s looking a lot closer than people thought. And if that’s the case, the runoff’s in January.
MS. IFILL: Well, and – (inaudible) – a runoff in Louisiana, we could have a little beignet, some beignets – (inaudible).
MS. BORGER: Sign me up. Sign me up.
MS. IFILL: Thank you, everybody.
MR. WILLIAMS: What about Alaska?
MS. IFILL: Reindeer.
We have to go now. But as always, the conversation continues online. The “Washington Week” Webcast Extra streams lives at 8:30 p.m. eastern. Plus you can find it all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. Among other things, we’ll talk about how President Obama’s secret weapon may be the cash he’s raising for candidates.
Keep up with developments with me and Judy Woodruff on the PBS NewsHour. And we’ll see you next week here on “Washington Week.”