Rep. Tim Ryan says Democrats made a mistake by focusing so heavily on the Zika fight this summer, picking a parochial political battle over an issue that turned out not to be the disaster they’d been counting on.
Democrats used the mosquito-borne virus as political cudgel throughout 2016, saying Republicans were shortchanging the effort to develop a vaccine and thwart birth defects tied to the disease. Repeated fights over spending took up much of Congress’ legislative time in the spring and summer.
Mr. Ryan, an Ohio Democrat challenging Rep. Nancy Pelosi for her House leadership post, said over the weekend that was a mistake, saying it threw the party “off track” in an election year dominated by economic angst.
“From the House of Representatives side, if you go and look back to the month or two or three before we even left to come home to campaign, we were talking about things like the Zika virus and other issues,” Mr. Ryan told CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. “I’m for increased funding for the Centers for Disease Control. Of course, we need to fund that and we need to help deal with the Zika virus. But that’s not a deep economic message that’s a national message.”
A Pelosi spokesman on Monday disputed Mr. Ryan’s claim that Democrats placed a greater election-year emphasis on Zika than the economy — their “Stronger America” focused on things like infrastructure and student debt relief — and said Mr. Ryan joined the rest of House Democrats in calling on GOP leadership to act on Zika funding.
Yet some analysts say Democrats overplayed their political hand on Zika after Republicans balked at President Obama’s $2 billion request in February to combat the disease.
Democrats repeatedly filibustered a military spending bill that contained a GOP-drafted Zika package in early July, saying it didn’t provide enough money and barred funds for Planned Parenthood-aligned clinics in Puerto Rico.
The Obama administration then piled on pressure by swiping money from the Ebola fight in West Africa and then announcing cuts to AIDS and cancer research to continue efforts to develop a Zika vaccine and develop better diagnostic tests for the virus.
“Their goal was to continue to paint Republicans as callous and uncaring. But the Democrats have been crying wolf for so long that most voters just tuned out,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist.
Fears of the disease spreading across much of the south and east were fed by government-issued maps of the range of the mosquitos capable of spreading Zika. But transmission was limited to several neighborhoods in southeast Florida.
About two dozen babies have been born with defects linked to Zika infection on the U.S. mainland so far, compared to thousands in Latin America.
The issue doesn’t appear to have cost anyone a seat.
Democratic Reps. Frederica S. Wilson and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose districts saw mosquito-borne cases, both won re-election, yet so did Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who supported Zika funding packages offered by both Mr. Obama and the GOP.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, won Florida and its 29 electoral votes after a campaign in which he railed against trade deals and illegal immigration instead of delving into issues like Zika, which faded into the background after Congress settled on a $1.1 billion compromise in late September.
“All the time [that Democrats] spent discussing that issue was time not spent on the economy or foreign policy,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “It was a mistake to focus so much on this issue when there were major challenges facing the country.”
As Mr. Trump plans to take over, the Obama administration says it has obligated $68 million for Zika in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, though it expects that most of the supplemental funding will be doled out by the end of March, or halfway through fiscal 2017.