Anthony Fauci is set to retire from public service, but Republicans have no intention of letting him leave the spotlight.
GOP lawmakers plan to seek testimony from the outgoing director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases once they take control of the House in January.
Fauci, for his part, says he has no problem going back to Capitol Hill.
Asked on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday whether he would appear after stepping down next month, Fauci replied, “Oh, of course. I mean, I’m very much in favor of legitimate oversight. I’ve testified before Congress … literally hundreds of times, in many oversight hearings.”
But even if both sides are agreeable to further congressional probes, the political ramifications of such a showdown are unpredictable.
Many Republicans believe public health experts such as Fauci, as well as Democratic politicians, advocated for excessive lockdown measures during the coronavirus pandemic.
If they are right in thinking that the public is still resentful of those moves — with school closures, in particular, remaining controversial — there could be a political benefit in grilling Fauci, especially for those on the right.
But if, on the other hand, the public is eager to simply put the pandemic in the rearview mirror — which it increasingly appears to be — the political utility of high-profile testimony from Fauci is much more questionable.
That is particularly the case given that voters face significant problems in the here, now and near future, such as high inflation and the possibility of recession.
It’s plausible that aggressive questioning of Fauci — who is no shrinking violet when it comes to defending himself — could backfire if it comes to be seen as raw partisan theater.
Even some Republicans confess to nervousness.
“I think it is appropriate to bring Fauci for a couple of Oversight hearings to ask about the handling of COVID — in order to make recommendations, find out how decisions were made and create better practices,” said one Republican strategist. “However, it would be unproductive to keep him attending hearings time after time in order to score political points.”
In a sign of the continued sensitivity around the issue, however, the strategist requested anonymity to offer an opinion.
The recent midterm elections were striking for how little salience COVID-19 had, given that political debates around the issue were white-hot not so long ago.
In one of the two major surveys of actual voters, conducted by NORC for The Associated Press and Fox, only 2 percent of voters judged the pandemic to be the biggest issue facing the country, amounting to a tie for last place among the nine issues tested.
In the other major exit poll, COVID-19 was not even included in the options for the most important issue. The question was instead dominated by inflation, abortion, crime, gun policy and immigration.
But the GOP isn’t letting its COVID-19 critiques — or Fauci — go.
A Republican National Committee spokesman emailed reporters Monday assailing President Biden for allegedly being too soft on China regarding COVID-19, and hitting Fauci for an “openness to more American lockdowns” — though the Fauci remark cited was actually in reference to RSV, not COVID-19.
Last week, as Fauci prepared to give his final White House briefing, Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) tweeted that the scientist “thinks resigning will prevent him from being held accountable. He’s wrong. We’ll be bringing him in ASAP.”
Beyond any specifics, Fauci has become a rhetorical punching bag for some leading figures on the populist right of the GOP, who can seem to be trying to outdo one another in the fervor of their attacks. However it plays with the general public, the Republican base is sure to greet with relish any rough handling of Fauci.
When he announced his imminent retirement in August, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) responded: “Never in our nation’s history has one arrogant bureaucrat destroyed more people’s lives.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) told a rally around the same time, “Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac.”
Larry Gostin, a Georgetown Law professor who specializes in public health — and a longtime friend of Fauci’s — told this column that he believed Republicans bringing the infectious diseases expert to face their wrath on Capitol Hill would be “politically, a very unwise move.”
Gostin argued that even many Republican voters are getting exasperated with “the politicization of COVID … and want to go back to a semblance of normalcy without the yelling and screaming.”
He also argued that attempts to besmirch Fauci run the risk of feeding stereotypes of the GOP as being “anti-science and anti-medicine.”
In addition, Gostin asserted, “knowing Tony as well as I do, he is rather likely to give the Republicans a bloody nose in any hearings, as he has done many times.”
To be sure, Fauci’s previous Capitol Hill exchanges with trenchant critics including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) have produced some fire — and viral moments. On one occasion in January, Fauci was picked up on a hot mic seemingly calling Marshall “a moron.”
There could be more such exchanges coming soon. But the GOP will need to play the politics carefully.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.