Debate-o-matic: figuring the right response to swine flu.

Debate-o-matic: figuring the right response to swine flu.

Debate-o-matic: figuring the right response to swine flu.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 1 2009 5:18 PM

Prudence or Panic?

Debate-o-matic: figuring the right response to swine flu.

To help you keep up with the debates in and about Washington, Slate offers this guide to the arguments of the week.

Swine Flu

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is a co-anchor of CBS This Morning, co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest, host of the Whistlestop podcast, and author of Whistlestop and On Her Trail.

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Panic. Just ask Joe Biden. He said he wouldn't let his family fly on a plane. We may not be at full pandemic yet, but we're almost there. "All countries should immediately activate their pandemic preparation plans," said World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan. The virus isn't a simple small iteration from previous viruses. It's a shift to a whole new virus, which means there's no vaccine and we have no immunities in our bodies to fight it. It also means the virus can mutate, get stronger, and then come roaring back next winter, as the flu did in 1918.

Don't panic. Perspective: So far, just 10 people have died from H1N1, and the New York Times cited a Northwestern University study that estimates  that only 1,700 people would contract the flu with no intervention at all. Just as we are not facing another Great Depression economically, we're also not facing a public health crisis of the level of 1918. Public health officials are more connected to one another and more aware of how to handle the outbreak than they were a century ago. We also have anti-viral drugs. Furthermore, scientists say this is a weak strain and caseloads are falling in Mexico, where this all started.

AP video: Government Prepares for the Worst

Specter Becomes a Democrat

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Not a lock for Obama. Sure, it helps a great deal for Obama to have 60 votes in the Senate, but Specter is quirky. He said he wouldn't vote in lock step with Democrats, and he's already voted with the Republicans on two important occasions this term, a bankruptcy bill and Obama's budget. There are other conservative Democrats, too, who won't always fall in line—Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. On issues like cap-and-trade, the president's bill faces opposition from Democratic senators from Midwestern and coal states, like Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Union leaders will tell you that Specter's defection does not mean that their favorite piece of legislation, the Employee Free Choice Act, will be able to pass, because there are so many Democrats who publicly and privately oppose it.

Obama is unstoppable. The presidential nightly prayer begins with "Please, Lord, give me 60 votes in the Senate," which Obama will get once Al Franken makes it out of the deadlock in Minnesota. That not only means the president can block Republican filibusters, but it also gives him maneuvering room. Sure, some senators, like Specter and Nelson, might vote with Republicans on this bill or that bill, but Obama can afford to lose some votes and still see the legislation he wants enacted become law. In fact, you want your conservative members to be able to vote against you sometimes, so they can point to instances where they bucked their party when they're back home bragging to their constituents about their independence. And on the really tough votes, where you need 60, more often than not even the cranky conservative Democrats will be with you.

Churchill and Torture

Obama was wrong. Obama may have removed Churchill's bust from his office, but it's nice to see that he holds him in his heart. In his press conference this week, Obama quoted Churchill saying, "We don't torture." Unfortunately, no one can find that quote attributed to Sir Winston. Obama appears to have mistakenly been talking about Col. Robin "Tin Eye" Stephens. And it turns out the British did torture, at a site known as "the London Cage."

Obama was essentially right. Churchill may never have said that the British don't torture, but the key question is whether torture was the policy of the British government. It was not. "London Cage does not fit the general pattern of British and American POW camps in Europe, Asia, North Africa, or Ethiopia/Somalia," as Darius Rejali, the world's expert on torture in democratic nations, told Andrew Sullivan.