A Message Sent to a Grudging President After a thumpin’, Obama doubles down on hostility, antagonism and distance.

The drubbin’, thumpin’, poundin’ was a two-part wave, a significant Republican rise in the U.S. Senate and a Democratic collapse in the governorships.

It was one of those nights neither party ever forgets.

Republicans won not only because of a favorable map. In solid Democratic states, they won big or came close. Nor were the results due only to low midterm turnout. Nate Cohn, in the New York Times , noted that turnout in Colorado was up over 2010, yet Republican Cory Gardner beat incumbent Sen. Mark Udall with room to spare. The sheer number of blowouts was mind-boggling. Sen. Mitch McConnell was supposed to win in Kentucky, but not by 15 points. In Arkansas the Republican challenger, Tom Cotton, beat Democratic incumbent, Sen. Mark Pryor, by 17 points. In Georgia, where the Senate race was assumed to be close, the Republican won by eight. Republican Pat Roberts, left for dead in Kansas months ago, won by 10.

President Barrack ObamaAmong the governors, Republican John Kasich won re-election in swing-state Ohio by an astounding 31 points. In South Carolina, incumbent Nikki Haley beat her Democratic challenger by 15 points. In solid-blue Illinois, the Republican challenger, Bruce Rauner, turned out the incumbent by five points; in solid-Democratic Maryland, the Republican candidate for governor won by a solid five. Scott Walker, perpetually under siege in Wisconsin, the focus of public-employee-union ferocity and targeted nationally by Democrats who needed to knock him off, also won by five.

It was not in the least a charisma election, a sweeping expression of support for a character or personality or movement. It was a message election. Sweeps like this come down to policy and governance. America on Tuesday told one party no, you’re not doing it right, we don’t like what we’re seeing, and your preoccupations (birth control, “War on Women”) are not our priorities.

The president said he was not on the ballot but his policies were. Those policies were resoundingly repudiated.

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But that is only one of the amazing things that happened this week. The second is how the president responded.

A sweep this size tends to resolve some things. The landscape shifts, political figures accommodate themselves to it.

Common sense says a chastened president would acknowledge the obvious—some things aren’t working, he has made some mistakes—and, in Mr. Obama’s case, hit the reset button with Congress. Reach out, be humble. Humility has power. It shows people that you have some give—you get the message, you are capable of self-correcting.

That is not what he’s doing. The president is instead doubling down on hostility, antagonism and distance.

What a mistake. What a huge, historic mistake, not only for him but also for his party.

In his news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Obama was grim and grudging, barely bothering to hide suppressed anger. “Republicans had a good night.” He was unwilling to explain or characterize what happened. “I’ll leave it to all of you and the professional pundits to pick through yesterday’s results.” He took no personal responsibility: The people sent a message and it is that Washington must work “as hard as they do.” He was unwilling to say what went wrong, why his party’s candidates didn’t want him near them on the trail. His answers were long, filibuster-y, meant to run out the clock. It was clear the White House wanted to say he met with reporters for more than an hour. He did. At one point he tried to smile but couldn’t quite pull it off; it came across as a Nixon-like flexing of the rictus muscles. (I tried to describe it in my notes. “Hatey” was the best I could do.)

There were airy generalities—“This town doesn’t work well”—and a few humblebrags: “I have a unique responsibility to try and make this town work”; “I’m the guy who’s elected by everybody.”

Most seriously and consequentially—the huge mistake—is that Mr. Obama said he will address immigration through executive action unless Congress sends a comprehensive bill to him that he finds attractive. He said this just after a news conference in which the presumed next Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, in a post-election statement that was actually conciliatory and constructive, said any such move by the president would “poison the well” with Congress. It would be experienced by Republicans on the Hill as pure aggression.

The president’s use of broad executive action would kill any chance of compromise or progress with Congress. And the amazing thing is that this isn’t even in his interests.

What is in his interests is for him to go forward in a spirit of compromise and try to reach agreements on the Hill through negotiations. This would be a relief after six years of nonstop acrimony. Republicans need an end of acrimony too: They want to show that they’re not just shutdown artists, as their foes say, but that they are a governing party in whose hands the country is safe. After a few bills were passed, people would start to feel that they were seeing progress. This would help the president get a new sentence defining him. The current sentence is something like, “Wow, that didn’t work, he really had the wrong skill sets.” Two years of governing peace might get him, “He had a dynamic first two years, lost the thread, was re-elected, then there was a lot of mess but he stabilized and got serious.” That’s not a bad sentence.

It is confounding—not surprising but stunning, unhelpful and ill-judged—that the president is instead going for antagonism, combat and fruitless friction.

This is not just poor strategy, it seems to me to be mildly delusional. Chris Matthews erupted on MSNBC: “There’s something in this guy that just plays to his constituency and acts like there’s no other world out there!”

That’s true. And deeply strange in a politician. It’s as if he doesn’t think he has to work with others, he only has to be right. I think Mr. Obama sees himself as a centrist because he often resists the pressures of the leftward-most edge of his base. Therefore in his imagination he is in the middle, the center. If he is in the middle of a great centrist nation, how can they turn on him? The answer: They are confused. This is their flaw, not his. He’s not going to let their logical flaws change his game.

And so the future may well be nonstop combat between the Hill and the White House. If the president does a big executive action, the Republican Congress will no longer think negotiations and deals are possible. They will over the coming years send him legislation that they can pass with the support of their majorities and moderate Democrats. If he vetoes, they will try to override.

The Republicans will be set up as the party passing bills that go in certain directions on certain issues, and those bills will no doubt be generally popular, or popular with the Republican base. If the bills are vetoed and can’t be overridden, Republicans will say they are frustrated by that willful loner—that obstructionist—in the White House.

That will probably set up the GOP pretty well for 2016. It will keep the party’s activists in a constant state of agitated alert.

Once again the president is doing his party no favors.

This is no way to run a railroad. The president here is doing what he has been doing for a while, helping Republicans look good. That is an amazing strategy for a Democratic president to adopt.

From Ellis Island to Ebola Is sacrificing a bit of comfort for public health such a great indignity?

On a bookshelf in my home in a glass-and-brass frame I keep my great-aunt’s Ellis Island health card. It’s cardboard, about as big as your hand. She wore it on her coat during her nine-day journey from Ireland. Every day the ship’s surgeon (possibly brusquely, probably officiously) examined her for signs of acute or long-term illness. The card noted her details—immigrant, steerage, age about 20—and other facts. SS California out of Londonderry, 1909, Mary Jane Byrne, last residence Glenties. On the back it says, “Keep this Card to avoid detention at Quarantine and in Railroads in the United States.” If she failed the physicals she would be held at Ellis Island or sent back. There’s a little notch to mark each day the doctor found her healthy. In the end there were nine.

She disembarked at Ellis Island where, so enraged at this crude, assaultive violation of her civil liberties—being subjected to intimate questioning by a stranger, feeling harassed by the daily threat of rejection and expulsion, being, in effect, immigrant-shamed—she got a lawyer, sued the U.S. government, and, with Emma Goldman and Floyd Dell, started a civil-liberties movement that upended American immigration law.

Wait, that’s not what happened! She accepted with grace the needs and demands of her new nation, took no offense, and acknowledged the utility of a quarantine or ban—why would America be bringing in sick people who could spread disease? She settled in Brooklyn near the Navy Yard and became a maid, a job she worked as a true profession, for half a century. Thus was America built.

The card she wore on her coat? She kept it as a souvenir. She didn’t know it was a relic of abuse, she thought it was a first palpable sign of citizenship. And so, 50 years later, she passed it on to me.

I miss such humility, don’t you? Did we fail to encourage it by forgetting to honor it? Or, if these questions are insufficiently ideological, whatever happened to courtesy to the collective? We should bring it back. We could answer the current quarantine question if we faced it with the calm of a 1909 immigrant.

View from Ellis IslandAn American nurse returns from Sierra Leone after treating Ebola patients. She did that on her vacation. We are proud of her. After she lands at Newark Airport she is hustled into quarantine. She is greatly shocked and indignant, loudly protests in the media. Her rights are being violated, her treatment is “inhumane.” By that she perhaps meant uncomfortable—a tent, paper scrubs, no shower. It was all on-the-fly and disorganized, a state scrambling to do what the federal government would not.

The nurse got sprung and is currently in Maine, refusing quarantine, threatening legal action, and gaily bicycling past media scrums. I see a future in politics.

Should she have been quarantined? Of course. Because she is at higher than normal risk of developing and transmitting a deadly virus.

She has been tested for the disease, tests came back negative, and she has no symptoms. But—do we need to keep saying this?—the same was true of Thomas Duncan, the Liberian visitor who later developed Ebola and died. As a doctor said, it takes time for the viral load to become big enough to register. The nurse probably won’t get sick—she looks like a person who knows how to protect herself—but why not be careful?

The nurse’s case of course makes us think of the New York City doctor who came back from Guinea a few weeks ago after helping people there. He ran all over New York—subways, restaurants, bowling alley—before he came down with Ebola. The New York Post this week quoted law-enforcement officials saying the doctor at first claimed he’d self-quarantined, then admitted he hadn’t. But to be blithely bopping around when he knew he might be carrying a dread illness whose spread would concern an entire city—that was, and I hope I’m not breaching protocols here, discourteous. It wasn’t nice of him to scare everyone like that.

It would have been gracious if the nurse, hearing of heightened public anxiety, and concerned for the safety of others, had patiently accepted the situation and expressed understanding.

Instead she, and the sick doctor, acted as if, when a microbe meets a respected and altruistic health-care professional, it, like the general public, is expected to bow.

Doctors Without Borders suggests those returning from health-care work in West Africa not go to work for 21 days. The military will quarantine U.S. troops back from West Africa for 21 days. Why can’t we have an overall national policy that establishes this? Why are the states forced to do it—then pressured not to?

It doesn’t seem to matter if quarantined individuals are at home by themselves, with a cop posted at the front door, or alone in another setting. The only point is that they not endanger anybody.

Support among the American public for quarantine appears at this point to be overwhelming. You can know this if you walk down the street and ask people, or if you look at a CBS poll that found 80% of respondents think citizens returning from West Africa should be quarantined until it’s clear they do not have the disease.

But America’s “professionals” in the scientific and medical communities, and certainly those in the White House, seem deeply uninterested in the views of common people. When pressed on the issue they, especially the president, offer only gobbledygook and slogans. We can’t be safe here until they’re safe over there! They sound like propagandists for Bleeding Belgium in World War I.

The only argument against a quarantine that makes sense is that the decision might dissuade U.S. health workers from going to West Africa. It can easily be answered. Pass a law to pay everyone’s full salary while they’re quarantined. Make it a free vacation. Get them every kind of benefit and service possible for those three weeks. And then when they’re well, thank them publicly. Have them in the balcony at the next State of the Union!

Three weeks off and the thanks of a grateful nation. That’s not a disincentive, it’s an incentive.

It must be noted that all this—the quarantine argument, the travel ban—is another expression of the deep, tearing distance between America’s professional and political elites, who operate as if they are estranged from common sense, and normal people, who are becoming more estranged from the elites, their oblivious and politicized masters.

That distance has been growing all my adult life, but the Ebola argument has brought it into sharper relief. The elites should start twigging onto it. They are no longer immediately respected, their guidance is not reflexively taken. They seem more immersed in political thinking—what is the ideologically enlightened position to take, where’s the boss on it?—than in protecting public health.

Or thinking commonsensically, like your great-aunt.

Which is too bad because great-aunts built America.

All this will be part of the story on Tuesday, in the elections. It is hard to believe you can patronize people, and play them, and they will not, first chance they get, sharply rebuke you.

How to Lose, and Win, Graciously

If the president’s party loses big on Tuesday, as appears likely, much of the loss will be due to 3 C’s—competence, coherence and credibility. Competence: The administration has shown little talent for or focused interest in running the federal government well, and has managed the executive agencies very poorly. Coherence: The administration has been unable to explain persuasively the reasoning behind its current priorities (global warming? really?) or its decisions in areas from foreign policy to Ebola in a way that has allowed the public to follow their thinking. Credibility: If you want your doctor you can keep your doctor, red lines, it’s highly unlikely Ebola will come here, there’s not a smidgen of corruption in the IRS, etc. It’s a terrible thing when a president loses his credibility.

Absolute failure in any one of the 3 C’s will bring trouble, and when you fail in all three you get very big, even historic trouble.

All this explains nostalgia for a certain former president. You can get quite a conversation going in any room in Manhattan now by comparing Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter, with everyone defending Carter.

It will mean a great deal how the president handles all this.

Two weeks ago we lauded Bill Clinton’s handling of his 1994 midterm drubbing. In a news conference the next day he accepted responsibility and suggested the political meaning of the election was that the public was more conservative than he was. That took some guts and humility. Cleverness, too. By convincing those on his left that they had to face reality, he opened the door for his historic compromises with the Contract Congress. This in turn gave Clinton room to breathe and gather his forces.

I wasn’t able to quote a lot of George W. Bush’s press conference the evening after the second term midterm thumpin’ in which his party lost 30 House seats, six Senate seats, and control of both chambers.

But in his news conference you hear the sound of an old graciousness that has eluded President Obama, who has long said there’s little he can do with obstructionists in Congress who are stuck on hating him.

For those who think Mr. Obama has faced unusual levels of rhetoric, consider this question from a reporter to Mr. Bush:

“Thank you, Mr. President. With all due respect, Nancy Pelosi has called you incompetent, a liar, the emperor with no clothes and, as recently as yesterday, dangerous. How will you work with someone who has such little respect for your leadership and who is third in line to the presidency?”

This is how Mr. Bush replied. “I’ve been around politics a long time. I understand when campaigns end and I know when governing begins. And I’m going to work with people of both parties. You know, look, people say unfortunate things at times. But if you hold grudges in this line of work, you’re never going to get anything done. And my intention is to get some things done, and soon—we’re start visiting with her Friday with the idea of coming together.”

That is the sound of political graciousness. It would be nice to hear it from Mr. Obama on Wednesday.

As for the Republicans, if they have as good a Tuesday night as they increasingly expect, it would be nice if they were gracious and big-minded, and a real relief if they didn’t look smug and get that curled smile that says “We got it back, baby, and Harry Reid will soon be out of that pretty office.” Wouldn’t it be nice if they were happy but modest, and made it clear they’re aware of the fix we’re in? “It is not about me and it’s not, my hardworking friends, about you. It’s about this thing we were given called America. It needs our help. So we are happy tonight, but it’s work in the morning, and the kind of work that is the most important, saving our country.”

Or, more pointedly: “I know what this is. It’s the base giving the party one last chance. They are telling us we better do something. That’s the meaning I take. and I mean to come through.”

On Oscar de la Renta and Ben Bradlee

He made women look beautiful. That is, among other things, a gracious thing for a man to do.

He was an elegant man, which you’d expect—his job was elegance—but he was also an example of great personal dignity and, I hope, a carrier of it. He was sick for many years before his death and bore his illness manfully, with grace and containment.

His life was fancy but he was no snob. The last time I spent time with him, two years ago at a friend’s birthday party in a Manhattan Italian restaurant, the waiters surrounded him at evening’s end. They didn’t want to know about movie stars or first ladies, they wanted to know more about something he’d mentioned in passing when he’d been there before. Many decades ago he had, as a young man and before he was successful, gone to an obscure Asian shirt maker who made shirts so beautiful and so inexpensive that to that day he got all his shirts made there. Who was the shirt maker? How could they get the shirts? He stayed at the end of the party, a longish one, to tell them exactly where to go, how to order, why he still wore only those shirts. Having found perfection as a young man he wasn’t about to let it go. You have to be loyal to excellence. The men appreciated that in him, and he appreciated it in them.

He struck me, in perhaps a dozen conversations over many years, as unjudging and yet discerning. That is a hard combination to hold in your head. It’s hard not to be censorious when you can see.

But he took people case by case and without letting previous assumptions govern what he experienced. He was a loyal and affectionate friend. He knew the kind of people about whom others want to gossip, but he didn’t put his friends’ names into the air. That might have enhanced his immediate status but it would have endangered them so he didn’t do it. He was discreet without seeming to withhold information, another hard combination. There was something about him that was Old New York: He had true and real friendships with people across all spectrums, in all areas and of all cultural and political persuasions. He didn’t make much of it but there was grit in his loyalty. If he liked you, you were in and deserved his protectiveness, and if you weren’t in with anyone else that was their problem.

Once, 22 years ago, he called me out of the blue and asked if I would help him think through a high school commencement address. He talked about what he wanted to tell these gifted and wonderful 17- and 18-year-old boys. I listened as his words bubbled. At the end I told him what I thought I was hearing: He wanted to tell them to have wise hearts and warm brains. He wanted them not to be cold in their thinking and judging, and yet not to be unquestioningly accepting of their own emotional responses to things. Yes, he said, that’s it. And that’s what he said.

I think now that was a description of him: a warm mind and a wise heart.

I said at the top that I hope Oscar proves to have been a carrier of dignity, an encourager of it, even when he’s gone. There are fewer and fewer in my beloved city who can make this old town work with all its divided and competing parts. Oscar was both a cultural and social force, and as those things he was both a leader and an example. He penetrated to the essence of a person and put aside the outer differences in which we are all encased.

New York needs to remember this style. My city now is increasingly a town of babyish partisans, especially on the liberal and Democratic side, which is the biggest and almost only side. Their primary fault is not that they can see no goodness on other sides, though that is often true, but that they don’t even know what their own side believes, and so they cannot see potential areas of progress and peace. They know nothing. They watch a little cable, go to dinner, take their cues. Not only are they smug, their smugness is unearned. And they are running the city, in almost every area.

Oscar, that discerning man, was not like that. I hope the old style of his dignity and discernment spreads.

There is something I said to a friend I was visiting in Connecticut three weeks ago, after Oscar and his wife, Annette, equally elegant and discerning, called to say they could not make it by for dinner Saturday night. He was not feeling well, recent tests were bad. Unspoken but obvious as my friend relayed the news was the fact that his long struggle was ending.

I told my friend what I thought of when I thought of Oscar. It was the scene in the movie “A River Runs Through It” when the minister and father of the murdered son remembers, with his surviving son, the boy who had died. His son tried to sum him up, and stumbled into banalities.

“You know more than that,” says the father. “He was beautiful.”

So too for this worldly and thoughtfully, I think perhaps lovingly, open minded and encompassing man, the stoic and dignified Oscar De la Renta. Rest in peace.

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Ben Bradlee was something else, a man who I’m fairly certain at some point understood himself to be playing one of the great parts of all time, that of Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee—rogue, irreverent crusader, charismatic leader of journalism, upper-class WASP throwback who had the wit to see his kind were a receding wave and he might as well be at the top as it crested, and show the boys how it’s done.

The great work of his life was Watergate, which took down a Republican president. Those writing of him tend to note he didn’t care much about politics or ideology, and that is certainly true. He loved journalism, he loved the story, the hunt, the chase. But be honest: He was only too happy if Republicans were the quarry because, let’s face it, they weren’t in the least attractive or stylish or from anyplace you’d find . . . interesting. They had no élan. They didn’t know how to do it. They were grubby, or earnest, or sheep who thought themselves foxes. And Bradlee did care about those things, about style and how people of his time, class, ethos and profession viewed the good guys and the bad guys. Ideology and stands and policies were part of it, always—but only part.

Meeting him over the years I found him friendly, burly, aware of his power. He had a beautiful quality in a journalist, the curiosity of a child. It was almost innocent. He wanted to know why things were and who did what and how it happened. He loved information. Some people think there’s nothing new under the sun, but you could imagine him bounding out of bed each morning: “What’s up! What’s happening! Who was at the party?”

I never quite understood why his friendship with John F. Kennedy was so controversial. Why shouldn’t they have been friends? They were a lot alike, from the same generation, with similar backgrounds—both fought in the war, the same interest in power. Bradlee got exclusives from JFK; JFK in turn got the kind of treatment a young man on the way up who didn’t want to lose access would tend to provide. They were practical men. But Bradlee didn’t try to hide their relationship and in fact wrote books about it.

Shortly after Bradlee’s second memoir came out, I bumped into him, congratulated him and mentioned how candid I thought he was about Kennedy in the book. “Candid?” he said. “Candid?”

Um, yes, I said, not understanding his reaction. Was he telling me he had not been candid? Was he saying his candor was to be expected? I never knew, but he was defensive on the subject. Maybe this was because of conservative criticism, though I can’t imagine a conservative could ruffle Ben Bradlee. I think some Torquemadas of his profession accused him of being insufficiently pure. But I never understood journalism to be pure.

The beautiful part of Ben Bradlee’s legacy: leaving the American public a memory of a newsroom run by a man so personally confident he would back young nobodies doggedly going after a story that, if true, was going to be huge, generation-sized, but the pursuit of which carried risk. He backed Woodward and Bernstein. That was his job. But it doesn’t always happen that way in journalism, that the top guy does his job. Bradlee, and Katharine Graham, deserves credit for it, and fame. If the Post had been all wrong in its Watergate reporting, and not just wrong at times as it was, it could have done the Post in.

Also he was by all accounts a heck of a lot of fun, and all professions need people who remind you of joy.

Other parts of Bradlee’s legacy are less fortunate though not precisely or only his fault. We did see him as Jason Robards. The Watergate saga made two things clear to an entire rising generation of journalists in the 1970s and ’80s, many of whom were more explicitly political and ideological than Bradlee himself. One is that you can make a career going after Republicans and conservatives in politics and government.

The other, more damaging, is that you can advance and pursue what you think of as ideological progress and political justice by going into journalism. Journalism in this thinking isn’t an end in itself, it’s something you do to advance an agenda.

In the late ’70s some newsrooms were going from places populated by tough, professional journalists who were personally more or less liberal, to young people of the left who were operating within journalism to achieve a higher political justice. But they didn’t say they were people of the left. They thought of themselves as normal and modern, and as normal, modern people, they didn’t like Republicans or conservatism. This evolution has never sufficiently righted itself.

I have made references to class, and here is a way it figured in as a journalistic reality. It is the famous “Jimmy’s World” story, in which a Washington Post reporter told the story of an impoverished 8-year-old boy in the District whose father was a drug addict and who shot his son up with heroin. When the story’s fraudulence was exposed, Bradlee moved to find out what had happened and return the Pulitzer Prize the story had received.

But I remember reading the original story the day it came out, and knowing as I read—literally knowing as i read, and I was not alone—that the story was not true, that it was fiction. I knew this because in my life I had known heroin addicts. And heroin addicts do not waste their heroin on children, they want it for themselves. They are desperate people in search of their own expensive soothing and pleasure, not anyone else’s, certainly not a child’s.

Ben Bradlee was not a man whose background would give him that kind of knowledge, nor was he heavily surrounded by people who would have it. The reporter, Janet Cooke, wasn’t just a fabulist, she was a fabulist who didn’t have a clue as to the realities of which she was writing.

Journalists once were rougher folk. They came from the bottom or middle and scrapped their way up. In Bradlee’s time, and not only at his newspaper, it all became fancy, and journalism became another step removed from life as it is lived. Reporters now are mostly from the Ivy League, the upper middle, are tidily raised, directed toward attainment, and seem to see large parts of America as a teamin’ steamin’ Petri dish with all these bacteria running around . . .

When legacy media lost its monopoly in the past 15 years it was surely in part because of the elite nature—and uniform thinking—of big journalism’s practitioners. As soon as people got other options they took them.

That’s not Ben Bradlee’s fault, but these trends were coming forward when he was the biggest guy in the field, and in ways he contributed. Janet Cooke was a beautiful young black woman who said she’d gone to Vassar. She hadn’t, but she knew what to say to get into the Post.

Ben Bradlee was a great editor, a vivid figure, a man of guts and a knockoff of nobody.

He wasn’t afraid of history, he entered it each day.

He had hunger, and hunger in life—hunger for life—is a beautiful thing.

Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee, rest in peace.

The Travel Ban and the New Czar

Saturday morning I was thinking of Pascal, as who was not. He had a mordant observation about the physicians of his time. Doctors in those days dressed fancy—long robes, tall hats. From memory: Why do doctors wear tall hats? Because they can’t cure you.

Why do public health officials speak in public as they do, with the plonking bureaucratic phrases and the air of windy evasion? Because they can’t cure you. Because they don’t really know what they’re doing. I think they are reassured by their voices, like children who wake up from a nightmare and say in the darkness, “That’s not true.”

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In his Saturday radio address, the subject of which was Ebola, the president warned the public against “hysteria.”

Again, the public isn’t hysterical but concerned. One reason is that they have witnessed a series of bad decisions by the government and its institutions. Another is that they know there’s no one to trust in this crisis, no official person who is in charge and seems equal to the task.

A third component of public anxiety has to do with what normal people can see and imagine, which they have a sense the government isn’t capable of seeing and imagining.

What normal people can see and imagine is that three Ebola cases have severely stressed the system. Washington is scrambling, the Centers for Disease Control is embarrassed, local hospitals are rushing to learn protocols and get in all necessary equipment. Nurses groups and unions have been enraged, the public alarmed—and all this after only three cases.

What would it look like if there were 300? That is not a big number in a nation of over 300 million. Yet it would leave the system hyperstressed, and hyperstressed things break down.

How many people and professionals have been involved in the treatment, transport, tracking, monitoring, isolation and public-information aspects of the three people who became sick? Again, what if it were 300—could we fully track, treat and handle all those cases? If scores of people begin over the next few weeks going to hospital emergency rooms with Ebola, how many of their doctors, nurses, orderlies, office staffers, communications workers and technicians would continue to report to their jobs? All of them at first, then most of them. But as things became more ragged, pressured and dangerous, would they continue?

This is why people are concerned. They can imagine how all this could turn south so fast, with only a few hundred cases. This is why the White House claims that we will not have a widespread breakout is fatuous: Even a limited breakout would take us into uncharted territory.

The only thing that will calm the public is competence. Until they see it, warnings about hysteria will be experienced as patronizing and deeply self-serving.

*   *   *

On the subject of a travel ban, the administration and those media members who function as its allies have produced a number of airy statements and sentiments. All of it feels of deliberate obfuscation and confusing of issues.

We have experienced Ebola in the United States because a Liberian citizen carrying the illness came here on a plane. That is why two of his nurses, so far, have gotten sick, and why scores of people are being tracked.

In order to enter the United States, Thomas Eric Duncan had to apply for a U.S. visitor visa. He did so, saying he wished to travel to Texas to attend his son’s high-school graduation. Mr. Duncan was granted a visa and flew from Monrovia to Brussels to Dulles to Dallas.

The question is whether the U.S. should, for now, ban the issuance of visas to citizens of the three West African nations where the illness is known to exist. That is what a travel ban would be.

Those opposed to it have taken to noting that there are no or very few direct flights from the affected nations to the U.S., and that citizens from the affected states can fly to other nations first, and then connect to the U.S.

That has nothing to do with the question of a ban. Direct versus indirect flights don’t matter because airplanes don’t catch and die of Ebola, people do. No matter how you get to the U.S. from the affected regions, to get in legally you need a visa.

There is the charge that a travel ban would isolate the three nations. But why “isolate”? First, we are only talking about U.S. travel; we are talking about keeping citizens of the affected nations from entering the US. Help can and would continue to go into those nations. Charter planes certainly could and would go in. Other airlines might too. Health workers would continue to go in, as would supplies of all sorts.

On returning from the nations in question, U.S. citizens and others would presumably have to go through a quarantine. But health-care volunteers, of all people, wouldn’t let that stop them.

The president, in his Saturday address, argued against a ban: “Trying to seal off an entire region of the world—if that were even possible—could actually make the situation worse.”

Well, no one has called for trying to “seal off” anything, not to mention “an entire region of the world.” This is just the president trying to paint those who oppose him as frightened and delusional.

And how would a ban make the situation worse? The president: “It would make it harder to move health workers and supplies back and forth.” But again, how? Why? Health-care workers would continue to go in.

“Experience shows that it could also cause people in the affected region to change their travel, to evade screening, and make the disease even harder to track.” This appears to be wordage in pursuit of a thought. If citizens of the three nations need a visa to come here, and are not given those visas, exactly what does the president think they will do to harm themselves, their countries, or us? Duncan himself, in fact, evaded screening even with a visa: He failed to self-report having been near Ebola when asked about it at the Monrovia airport.

Nor will the new screening at U.S. airports prove an adequate replacement for a ban. Those carrying the virus who show no symptoms will breeze through, as Duncan did.

What will help keep people with Ebola from entering the U.S. is denying U.S. travel visas to those from the affected countries.

Some critics, finally, say that a ban won’t work 100%. Let’s posit that. But if it works 78%, or 32%, isn’t it worth it?

The burden is on those who oppose a ban to make a hard, factual, coherent and concrete case. It is telling that so far they have not been able to.

*   *   *

On the appointment of Ron Klain as the president’s so-called Ebola Czar, much is made of the fact that he lacks a medical or scientific background. I’m not sure that’s important.

More significant is that he is a longtime, hard-line Democratic Party operative who is known more for spin and debate prep than high-level management. That suggests the White House sees the Ebola crisis as foremost a political messaging problem. The president certainly seems unafraid of appearing to see the problem as a political messaging one. His primary focus when choosing Klain looks self-indulgent: “Who do I trust and like to work with?” as opposed to “What does the public require and the situation demand?”

Ebola is going to prove spin-resistant: In fact, the more you spin down the deeper you’re going to get in the hole.

A problem with the Klain appointment is that he does not have natural command presence and public authority. The administration blew its initial handling of the crisis. What is needed is a Gen. Schwarzkopf sort of figure who could stand there at the morning briefing and tell you what’s happening and you know he’s telling it to you true. A straight-shooting retired general or admiral, or a civilian—an independent CEO with a public reputation, someone known for getting things done, someone with his own lines of communication to the media and political class. A Mike Bloomberg—someone who doesn’t need you, who can walk away from the job if he doesn’t get the tools and is feared inside because he can walk.

Someone who is not only bigger than Ron Klain but bigger than Barack Obama.

Instead, the president appointed a political mover and partisan operator who was played in a movie by Kevin Spacey.

Why does that seem such a consequential mistake?

Who Do They Think We Are? The administration’s Ebola evasions reveal its disdain for the American people.

The administration’s handling of the Ebola crisis continues to be marked by double talk, runaround and gobbledygook. And its logic is worse than its language. In many of its actions, especially its public pronouncements, the government is functioning not as a soother of public anxiety but the cause of it.

An example this week came in the dialogue between Megyn Kelly of Fox News and Thomas Frieden , director of the Centers for Disease Control.

Their conversation focused largely on the government’s refusal to stop travel into the United States by citizens of plague nations. “Why not put a travel ban in place,” Ms. Kelly asked, while we shore up the U.S. public-health system?

Mad DoctorDr. Frieden replied that we now have screening at airports, and “we’ve already recommended that all nonessential travel to these countries be stopped for Americans.” He added: “We’re always looking at ways that we can better protect Americans.”

“But this is one,” Ms. Kelly responded.

Dr. Frieden implied a travel ban would be harmful: “If we do things that are going to make it harder to stop the epidemic there, it’s going to spread to other parts of—”

Ms. Kelly interjected, asking how keeping citizens from the affected regions out of America would make it harder to stop Ebola in Africa.

“Because you can’t get people in and out.”

“Why can’t we have charter flights?”

“You know, charter flights don’t do the same thing commercial airliners do.”

“What do you mean? They fly in and fly out.”

Dr. Frieden replied that limiting travel between African nations would slow relief efforts. “If we isolate these countries, what’s not going to happen is disease staying there. It’s going to spread more all over Africa and we’ll be at higher risk.”

Later in the interview, Ms. Kelly noted that we still have airplanes coming into the U.S. from Liberia, with passengers expected to self-report Ebola exposure.

Dr. Frieden responded: “Ultimately the only way—and you may not like this—but the only way we will get our risk to zero here is to stop the outbreak in Africa.”

Ms. Kelly said yes, that’s why we’re sending troops. But why can’t we do that and have a travel ban?

“If it spreads more in Africa, it’s going to be more of a risk to us here. Our only goal is protecting Americans—that’s our mission. We do that by protecting people here and by stopping threats abroad. That protects Americans.”

Dr. Frieden’s logic was a bit of a heart-stopper. In fact his responses were more non sequiturs than answers. We cannot ban people at high risk of Ebola from entering the U.S. because people in West Africa have Ebola, and we don’t want it to spread. Huh?

In testimony before Congress Thursday, Dr. Frieden was not much more straightforward. His answers often sound like filibusters: long, rolling paragraphs of benign assertion, advertising slogans—“We know how to stop Ebola,” “Our focus is protecting people”—occasionally extraneous data, and testimony to the excellence of our health-care professionals.

It is my impression that everyone who speaks for the government on this issue has been instructed to imagine his audience as anxious children. It feels like how the pediatrician talks to the child, not the parents. It’s as if they’ve been told: “Talk, talk, talk, but don’t say anything. Clarity is the enemy.”

The language of government now is word-spew.

Dr. Frieden did not explain his or the government’s thinking on the reasons for opposition to a travel ban. On the other hand, he noted that the government will consider all options in stopping the virus from spreading here, so perhaps that marks the beginning of a possible concession.

It is one thing that Dr. Frieden, and those who are presumably making the big decisions, have been so far incapable of making a believable and compelling case for not instituting a ban. A separate issue is how poor a decision it is. To call it childish would be unfair to children. In fact, if you had a group of 11-year-olds, they would surely have a superior answer to the question: “Sick people are coming through the door of the house, and we are not sure how to make them well. Meanwhile they are starting to make us sick, too. What is the first thing to do?”

The children would reply: “Close the door.” One would add: “Just for a while, while you figure out how to treat everyone getting sick.” Another might say: “And keep going outside the door in protective clothing with medical help.” Eleven-year-olds would get this one right without a lot of struggle.

If we don’t momentarily close the door to citizens of the affected nations, it is certain that more cases will come into the U.S. It is hard to see how that helps anyone. Closing the door would be no guarantee of safety—nothing is guaranteed, and the world is porous. But it would reduce risk and likelihood, which itself is worthwhile.

Africa, by the way, seems to understand this. The Associated Press on Thursday reported the continent’s health-care officials had limited the threat to only five countries with the help of border controls, travel restrictions, and aggressive and sophisticated tracking.

All of which returns me to my thoughts the past few weeks. Back then I’d hear the official wordage that doesn’t amount to a logical thought, and the unspoken air of “We don’t want to panic you savages,” and I’d look at various public officials and muse: “Who do you think you are?”

Now I think, “Who do they think we are?”

Does the government think if America is made to feel safer, she will forget the needs of the Ebola nations? But Americans, more than anyone else, are the volunteers, altruists and in a few cases saints who go to the Ebola nations to help. And they were doing it long before the Western media was talking about the disease, and long before America was experiencing it.

At the Ebola hearings Thursday, Rep. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.) said, I guess to the American people: “Don’t panic.” No one’s panicking—except perhaps the administration, which might explain its decisions.

Is it always the most frightened people who run around telling others to calm down?

This week the president canceled a fundraiser and returned to the White House to deal with the crisis. He made a statement and came across as about three days behind the story—“rapid response teams” and so forth. It reminded some people of the statement in July, during another crisis, of the president’s communications director, who said that when a president rushes back to Washington, it “can have the unintended consequence of unduly alarming the American people.” Yes, we’re such sissies. Actually, when Mr. Obama eschews a fundraiser to go to his office to deal with a public problem we are not scared, only surprised.

But again, who do they think we are? You gather they see us as poor, panic-stricken people who want a travel ban because we’re beside ourselves with fear and loathing. Instead of practical, realistic people who are way ahead of our government.

Is ‘Worthy Fights’ Worthy? Unlike his Pentagon predecessor, Leon Panetta hasn’t written a serious memoir.

There’s the sense of an absence where the president should be.

Decisions are made—by someone, or some agency—on matters of great consequence, Ebola, for instance. The virus has swept three nations of West Africa; a Liberian visitor has just died in Dallas. The Centers for Disease Control says it is tracking more than 50 people with whom he had contact.

The commonsense thing—not brain science, just common sense—would be for the government to say: “As of today we will stop citizens of the affected nations from entering the U.S. We will ban appropriate flights, and as time passes we’ll see where we are. We can readjust as circumstances change. But for now, easy does it—slow things down.”

Instead the government chooses to let the flow of individuals from infected countries continue. They will be screened at five U.S. airports, where their temperatures will be taken and they will be asked if they have been around anyone with Ebola.

A lot of them, knowingly or unknowingly, have been around Ebola. People who are sick do not in the early stages have elevated temperatures. People who are desperate to leave a plague state will, understandably if wrongly, lie on questionnaires.

U.S. health-care workers at airports will not early on be organized, and will not always show good judgment. TSA workers sometimes let through guns and knives. These workers will be looking for microbes, which, as they say, are harder to see. A baby teething can run a fever; so will a baby with the virus. A nurse or doctor with long experience can tell the difference. Will the airport workers?

None of this plan makes sense. It’s busy work meant to foster confidence. But it encourages the feeling that no one’s in charge, the federal government isn’t working, everyone’s dissembling, and the No. 1 priority is to keep the public calm as opposed to safe.

*   *   *

And now this week’s story on the big absence.

Leon Panetta & Barrack Obama

President Obama with outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in 2013.

Leon Panetta ’s “Worthy Fights” pretends to offer answers to a problem of which the book is actually an example—the mindless (as opposed to thoughtful and constructive) partisanship that has seized Washington. This memoir of his years as a successful political and bureaucratic player is obnoxious and lacks stature. Reading a comparable book, Robert Gates ’s recent, stinging memoir, you could see through the lines a broken heart. In Mr. Panetta’s you see mostly spleen.

He is catty about David Petraeus —his office is “a shrine . . . to himself.” Mr. Panetta subtly, deftly, with a winning oh-goshness, takes a whole lot of credit for the bin Laden raid. This section is accompanied by unctuous compliments for Mr. Obama, whose chief brilliance appears to be that he listened to Mr. Panetta.

“Worthy Fights” is highly self-regarding even for a Washington book. Mr. Panetta is always surprised, due to his natural modesty, to be offered yet another, higher position. He reluctantly accepts and wins over doubters with his plain, no-B.S. style. He does well, seeing around corners, saving budgets, and developing relationships with anxious prime ministers who need a pal.

Publicly Mr. Panetta has always been at great pains to show the smiling, affable face of one who is above partisanship. But this book is smugly, grubbily partisan. Republicans aren’t bright and never good, though some— Bob Dole comes up—are reasonable. Republican presidents tend to be weak or care only for the rich. He really, really hates Newt Gingrich . His headline on the entire Reagan era: “Poverty spread and deepened during the Reagan years.” Under Bill Clinton “the economy boomed,” “poverty shrunk,” and “leadership matters.” Reagan, in fairness, was less terrible than Mr. Panetta expected, “less ideological and partisan.” Mr. Clinton is “ravenously intelligent.” Mr. Panetta lauds Mr. Clinton’s “astonishing ability to sift through facts” and his “empathy for average people.” The compliments are at once lackeyish and patronizing.

In the epilogue Mr. Panetta seems to catch himself and writes, dictates or edits in the thought that he does not mean “to suggest that Democrats are good and Republicans are bad.” But that is what he repeatedly suggests.

Here’s what is disturbing: to think this is one of Washington’s wise men.

Here’s what’s true. At 76, at the end of a half-century-long, richly rewarded career, with perspective having presumably been gained and smallness washed away, in a book of history and reflection written at a time of high national peril, a lack of political graciousness, and the continued presence of a dumb and grinding partisanship, is unattractive to the point of unseemly.

Mr. Panetta perhaps took this tack to buy himself space on the left. He is telling partisan Democrats on the ground that he’s really one of them, he hates those Republicans too, so you can trust him when he tells you Mr. Obama’s presidency is not a success.

Which he does.

There is “a problem with President Obama’s use of his cabinet.” Every decision now comes from the White House, from people around the president, so secretaries learn not to take the initiative or push for needed change.

Enforced passivity tends to filter down. Which would explain a few things.

On Iraq, Mr. Panetta says he argued that if we did not leave behind a residual force to provide security and training, the country would slip into chaos with terrorists filling the vacuum. The White House pushed back; things got heated. Mr. Panetta’s side came to see the White House as “so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.” That is a serious charge. The White House won, and Iraq deteriorated.

Mr. Obama is scored for “failing to lead Congress” out of the sequester. The president’s “most conspicuous weakness” is “a frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause.” He is “supremely intelligent”—almost ravenously intelligent—but “sometimes lacks fire.” He “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.”

All this is credible and accords with the testimony of others. But it is fair to ask if he cared so much why he didn’t leave and speak sooner. It is fair to ask how much he left out. One reads and senses: a lot.

Actually the way the president increasingly comes across, and not only in this book, is as eccentric—a person drawn to political power who doesn’t much like politics, or people, and who takes little joy from the wielding of power. Mr. Panetta suggests Mr. Obama isn’t good at rah-rah. He’s good at rah-rah for himself, just not for other causes.

The book has been received cynically in some precincts and supportively in others, where Mr. Panetta’s candor and bravery are lauded. I’m not sure brave is the right word for a man who knows where the bodies are buried and can more than take care of himself in a street fight.

Some say he wrote the book to help detach Hillary Clinton ’s fortunes from those of Mr. Obama. Maybe, but Mr. Panetta is savvy, shrewd and quick to see where things are going. I suspect he’s trying to detach his entire party’s fortunes from Mr. Obama. Reading this book and considering its timing, you get the impression that’s the real worthy battle on his mind.

The New Bureaucratic Brazenness Official arrogance is the source of public cynicism.

We’re all used to a certain amount of doublespeak and bureaucratese in government hearings. That’s as old as forever. But in the past year of listening to testimony from government officials, there is something different about the boredom and indifference with which government testifiers skirt, dodge and withhold the truth. They don’t seem furtive or defensive; they are not in the least afraid. They speak always with a certain carefulness—they are lawyered up—but they have no evident fear of looking evasive. They really don’t care what you think of them. They’re running the show and if you don’t like it, too bad.

And all this is a new bureaucratic style on the national level. During Watergate those hauled in and grilled by Congress were nervous. In Iran-Contra, Olllie North was in turn stoic, defiant and unafraid to make an appeal to the public. But commissioners and department heads now—they really think they’re in charge. They don’t bother to fake anxiety about public opinion. They care only about personal legal exposure. They do not fear public wrath.

All this became apparent in the past year’s IRS hearings, and was pronounced in Tuesday’s Secret Service hearings.

Julia Pierson , the director, did not seem at all preoccupied with what you thought of her. She was impassive, generally unresponsive and unforthcoming. She didn’t bother to show spirit or fiery commitment. She was the lifeless expression of consultant-guided anti-truth.

No question was answered straight and simple. Everything was convoluted and involved extraneous data, so that listeners couldn’t follow the answer and by the end couldn’t remember the question. I am certain government witnesses do this deliberately—the rounded words, long sentences that collapse, the bureaucratic drone—so reporters will fall asleep and fail to file. An hour in Tuesday I expected the TV camera to slowly slide toward the ceiling, with the screen covered in a cameraman’s drool. “Mistakes were made.” “Our security plan was not properly executed.” Yes, you could say that of a story in which a nut with a knife burst into the White House and ran around the ceremonial rooms. Ms. Pierson neglected to mention in her testimony the story that would break shortly after she finished: Secret Service agents in Atlanta a few weeks before had allowed on to an elevator carrying the president a private security man, who reportedly jumped around taking pictures and was later found to be carrying a gun.

Blah Evasion I'm BoredMs. Pierson resigned after bad reviews of her performance. That’s a tragedy in the sense it’s tragic she wasn’t fired.

But does anybody in the government feel it is necessary to be truthful about anything anymore? Does anyone in the federal government ever think about concepts like “taxpayers” and “citizens” and their “right to know”?

Everything sounds like propaganda. That will happen when government becomes too huge, too present and all-encompassing. Everything almost every level of government says now has the terrible, insincere, lying sound of The Official Line, which no one on the inside, or outside, believes. The other day, during the big Centers for Disease Control news conference on the Dallas Ebola case, a man from one of the health agencies insisted in burly (and somehow self-satisfied) tones that the nation’s health is his group’s No. 1 priority. And I thought, just like a normal person, “No, your No. 1 priority is to forestall a sense of panic. To do that you’ll say what you need to say. Your second priority, connected to the first, is to assert the excellence and competence of the agency with which you are associated. Your third priority is to keep the public safe.”

Everyone who spoke was very smooth. “I think ‘handful’ is the right characterization,” said the CDC director to a Wall Street Journal reporter who asked if the sick man had contact with others before he was hospitalized. (That became “up to 100” the next day.) The officials were relentlessly modern-bureaucratic in their language. They have involved all “stakeholders.”

Was the sick man an American or a foreign national? “The individual was here to visit family.” Oh. The speaker’s tone implied he’ll tell us more down the road if he decides we can handle it.

What about those who traveled on the same plane as the man, and which flight was it? “Ebola is a virus. It’s easy to kill if you wash your hands,” said CDC chief Thomas Frieden . You are only infectious once you are sick, not before.

Ebola will not, all agreed, produce a full-fledged American epidemic. “We are stopping it in its tracks in this country,” Dr. Frieden said.

That may be true. But nobody thinks it because government doctors and professionals said it. Americans do not have confidence in what The Officials tell them anymore.

This is not only because we live in a cynical age. In this case it’s because people know the truth always contains uncomfortable elements, and in the CDC news conference very few uncomfortable elements were allowed.

They say the only thing you have to fear is personal contact, but they shy away from clearly defining personal contact. They suggest it has to do with bodily fluids, so you immediately think of the man sneezing next to you on the train. They do not want to discuss the man sneezing next to you on the train.

They did not want to discuss who the sick man was, his nationality, exactly what flight he came in on. They are good to their global masters! Sorry, just reacting like a normal person. There was a persistent sense the professionals had agreed to be chary with information that might alarm America’s peasants and make them violent.

We are locked in some loop where the public figure knows what he must pronounce to achieve his agenda, and the public knows what he must pronounce to achieve his agenda, and we all accept what is being said while at the same time everyone sees right through it. The public figure literally says, “Prepare my talking points,” and the public says, “He’s just reading talking points.” It leaves everyone feeling compromised. Public officials gripe they can’t break through the cynicism. They cause the cynicism.

The only people who seem to tell the truth now are the people inside the agencies who become whistleblowers. They call a news organization, get on the phone with a congressman’s staff. That’s basically how the Veterans Affairs and Secret Service scandals broke: Desperate people who couldn’t take the corruption dropped a dime. What does it say about a great nation when its most reliable truth tellers are desperate people?

Sometimes it looks as if everyone in public life is in showbiz, only showbiz with impermeable employee protections. Lois Lerner of IRS fame planted the question, told the lie, took the Fifth, lost the emails and stonewalled. Her punishment for all this was a $100,000-a-year pension for the rest of her life. Imagine how frightened she was. I wonder what the Secret Service head’s pension will be?

A nation can’t continue to be vibrant and healthy when the government controls more and more, and yet no one trusts a thing the government says. It’s hard to keep going that way.

Questions for the Secret Service

Three questions for Secret Service Director Julia Pierson, testifying this day before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee regarding recent breaches of White House security:

Ms. Pierson, let’s try to lift this story beyond immediate incidents. Just about every establishment and institution in America has seen its public reputation lowered, its standing diminished in the past 25 years or so. Here in Congress, journalism, the law, the academy, the church—all have seen their reputations damaged the past quarter-century or so. But it seems to me almost no reputation has been damaged as much as that of the Secret Service. We used to make movies about them. They were the most disciplined, selfless and professional men. They were Clint Eastwood. Better than that, they were Rufus Youngblood, they were Tim McCarthy, who stood there like a little stone wall the day Reagan was shot and took a bullet. What mystique they had. And now—I’m going to be rude but blunt—they come across as a bunch of mooks. Security breaches, coverups, scandals with prostitutes, someone shoots at the White House and they don’t notice it. I want you to think aloud here to help us. Don’t be defensive, we won’t hold what you say against you. We will stipulate that many members of the Secret Service are heroic, selfless, brilliant. I accept that. But you’ve seen the decline. Ms. Pierson, what happened? Did it happen the past 25 years, or 10 years? What is the biggest reason for the decline of the Secret Service? I give you the rest of my time.

Ms. Pierson, when the Secret Service operated, bizarrely and yet with high effectiveness, under the Treasury Department, the Secret Service worked. That is when it developed its habits and traditions of excellence. That’s when it dazzled. After 9/11, in the great and huge government reorganization that followed, the Secret Service was put into the Department of Homeland Security. And from there, I think, we have seen deterioration and the falling of morale and competence. Am I seeing this right? Being under DHS is the problem, or part of it? In your personal view should the Secret Service be put back under Treasury?

Ms. Pierson, when stories like this become public, we can with a fair degree of confidence predict they will inspire others to attempt a similar act. When a man jumps the fence and gets to the East Room of the White House it alarms the law-abiding and peaceable and will tend to incite copycats, crazy men and extremists. What steps are you taking now—immediately—to at least temporarily beef up protection of the White House, the president and his family?

Republicans Need a Direction They could win by default, but that’s not good enough.

In a year when Republicans are operating in such an enviable political environment, why aren’t their U.S. Senate candidates holding big and impressive leads? Why does it look close? Why are party professionals getting worried?

The Democratic president is unpopular. What progress can be claimed in the economy is tentative, uneven, feels temporary. True unemployment is bad and people who have jobs feel stressed and hammered by costs. Americans are less optimistic than they’ve ever been in the modern era, with right-track/wrong-track numbers upside down. Scandals, war, uncertain leadership—all this has yielded a sense the whole enterprise of the past six years just did not work.

But Republicans aren’t achieving lift-off. The metaphor used most often is the wave. If Republicans can’t make, catch and ride a wave in an environment like this, they’ve gone from being the stupid party to the stupid loser party.

What’s wrong?

An accomplished establishment Republican this week shrugged and noted the obvious: Every race is state-by-state and has its own realities; some candidates prove good and some are disappointing. Another establishment figure, an elected officeholder, observed with satisfaction that Republicans in Washington have done a good job making sure local candidates weren’t nutty persons who said nutty things.

But is that enough? Kellyanne Conway of The Polling Co. says no: “It’s not enough for voters to have a candidate who doesn’t say something controversial. They need something compelling.”

Muscular ElephantThe party’s consultants say it comes down to money: Republicans are raising less than Democrats and need more. But Ms. Conway notes that in 2012, well-funded Republicans George Allen, Connie Mack, Linda McMahon, Josh Mandel and Tommy Thompson all went down to defeat. It’s not all about money.

The question this week is whether the election should be nationalized, lifted beyond the local and given power by clear stands on some agreed-upon national issues. Those who resist say the election has already been nationalized by Barack Obama . His and his administration’s unpopularity are all the unifying force that’s needed.

But put aside the word “nationalized.” Shouldn’t the Republican Party make it clear right now exactly what it is for and what it intends to do?

Here the views of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and much of the Washington-based GOP election apparatus have held sway. If you are explicit in terms of larger policy ideas, you just give Democrats something to shoot at. Don’t give them a target. ObamaCare, the foreign-policy mess, the IRS—these are so unpopular they’re more than enough reason to vote Republican. Don’t give voters a reason not to!

This sounds like the hard practicality of big-time politics, and it has a certain logic. But it doesn’t take into account some underlying realities.

One is the rising air of public crisis. Many voters, especially in the Republican base, feel America is under threat and we are losing our country. They feel they are fighting to save it. In a time of alarm, vagueness doesn’t seem clever but oblivious—out of touch and unaware.

Asecond reality is the GOP’s brand problem. Everyone knows about it and is tired of saying it; the Democrats continue exploiting it because it’s almost all they have. Moreover, history suggests a political brand problem gets resolved only by a vivid figure like FDR or Reagan, who through their popularity and power changed how people saw their parties. Republican politicians can’t sit around waiting for a vivid figure to come along, so they don’t talk about the problem anymore.

The cliché is that Republicans are old, white, don’t like women or science, are narrow, numeric and oppose all modern ways. The cliché probably isn’t as powerful as it used to be because the president has made so many new Republicans, but it’s still there.

But Republicanism right now has a special duty to be dynamic and serious. It has to paint a world of the possible. It has to make people feel that things can be made better. The spirit animating the party should be “This way, we will take that hill and hold it. Together, now, let’s march.” To rouse people you have to tell them your plans.

And it would be especially welcome at this moment. The Democratic Party in the last years of Obama is running on empty, pushing old buttons. To judge by their current campaigns, their only bullets are mischief and malice. The mischief includes a wholly fictional Republican war on women and the malice involves class-mongering and “check your privilege” manipulation. Only the young seem idealistic; older Democrats seem like a sated force.

The Democrats’ reputation is suffering, but the point here is the Republicans’. When you have a poor brand, do you spend all your time saying the other guy is worse? Or do you start rebuilding your reputation? In politics that means saying what you are for, not what you are against, and what you will do, not what the other guy will do if the voters let him.

A third reason to go with the idea of avowed meaning is the suspicion some voters must have that while to vote Democratic this year is to vote for the potential of more trouble, to vote Republican may be a vote for nothing changing or improving very much.

Both parties in Washington use stasis as a strategy. I suspect there are Republicans on the ground who intuit the Republican version of this. Republican inertia was outlined to me this spring, ironically, by a GOP congressman:

The 2010 election, he explained, was about winning the House, don’t rock the boat. Twenty twelve was all about the presidential—again don’t rock the boat, don’t mess things up with anything controversial, win the presidency to effect change. In 2014, he said, it’s all about the Senate—win it, hold the House. Then in 2016 it’s going to be all about the presidential and holding the Senate. In 2018, he said, it will be all about holding Congress for a Republican president or against a Democratic one. Then in 2020 it will be all about the presidential.

After that, he said, we might do something!

His point was that party professionals think the party has to keep winning, so—wait. For what?

Republican political professionals need to get the meaning of things back. Otherwise, if Republicans do take the Senate, their new majority will arrive not having won on the basis of something shared. They will not be able to claim any mandate for anything. That will encourage them to become self-driven freelancers in a very pleasant and distinguished freelancer’s club, which is sort of what the Senate is.

It’s good to win, but winning without a declared governing purpose is a ticket to nowhere.

Some feel a vague list of general stands might solve the problem and do the trick. They think it’s probably too late to do more than that. But there are 6½ weeks before the election, and plenty of voters would be asking for more information and open to changing their minds. In such circumstances, explicit vows are more likely to be taken seriously than airy sentiments.

Republicans need to say what they’re for. They need to make it new and true—not something defensive but something equal to the moment.