It’s suddenly obligatory for every Republican 2016 presidential hopeful to weigh in on vaccines and prepare for a grilling from the media if they voice anything less than enthusiastic support.
Democrats, of course, will be asked no follow-up questions, nor will they be forced to confront anti-vaxxer sentiments they’ve made in the past. This is wholly and entirely a Republican story in the media’s eyes.
Senator Rand Paul, who has medical credentials, delivered the sort of qualified support that’s bound to cause him headaches in the future. “VACCINATION” is now written with a red Sharpie in every reporter’s notebook under the list of issues that squeeze controversial sound bites out of him. The other doctor who might be running for president in 2016, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, entered Vaccination Thunderdome with a position very distinct from Paul’s. Carson strongly advocated vaccination, coming close to the other boundary of the debate, federally mandated and enforced universal vaccination, where even big government Democrats fear to tread. Fortunately for them, they don’t have to worry about the media pushing them to explain why it shouldn’t be federally mandated, but Carson should probably get ready for that question.
“Although I strongly believe in individual rights and the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit, I also recognize that public health and public safety are extremely important in our society,” Carson said in a statement to the press. “Certain communicable diseases have been largely eradicated by immunization policies in this country and we should not allow those diseases to return by foregoing safe immunization programs, for philosophical, religious or other reasons when we have the means to eradicate them. Obviously there are exceptional situations to virtually everything, and we must have a mechanism whereby those can be heard.”
It’s his use of the phrase “we should not allow those diseases to return” that will probably earn him the sort of follow-up questions about compulsory vaccination that Democrats won’t have to spend much time on, but his meaning is clear enough: he’s acknowledging that this is ultimately an individual decision, but very strongly urging parents to vaccinate their children. He also takes proper scientific care to note that “vaccination” is a very large topic with many special cases.
This is the sort of crisp, clear, comprehensive statement that every other GOP candidate should emulate, with due preparation for those special Republican-only follow-up questions from the press. Just to give you a taste of how this game will be played over the coming weeks, the New York Daily News headlined Carson’s statement “Ben Carson Supports Obama’s Call For Parents to Vaccinate Their Children.” You’re not supposed to be quite so obvious about how this is all a manufactured hit against Republicans, guys.
The bottom line is that just about everyone pushed into this game so far — Obama, Carson, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Senator Rand Paul, and Hillary Clinton, who will be permitted to hit the showers for a break whenever she wants — broadly agrees on the policy here. What’s different is the rhetoric, the way each politician frames the issue, and how much each can be portrayed as pandering to the anti-vaxxers who brought about the current child health crisis.
Governor Christie’s office rushed to “clarify” his position after controversy erupted, and his clarification is logically identical to what Carson said: “To be clear: The Governor believes vaccines are an important public health protection and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated. At the same time, different states require different degrees of vaccination, which is why he was calling for balance in which ones government should mandate.”
The problem is that Christie wasn’t clear about that the first time around. He’s probably genuinely surprised that he got clobbered over that statement, but he shouldn’t be. He should understand how the media’s rules work, he should know how big the measles outbreak story is, and if he really thinks there’s “no question kids should be vaccinated,” he ought to realize that his reputation as a tough-talking, confrontational politician would create an expectation for him to say as much, bluntly. If the task at hand is to convince parents to vaccinate, then giving any rhetorical support to the anti-vaxxers is counter-productive.
Christie and Paul didn’t realize they were walking into the opening movement of a Democrat-media orchestral performance, hinged on the rather precisely-timed comments President Obama made on vaccination over the weekend. That’s why outlets such as the New York Daily News are giving too much of the game away by explicitly positioning Obama as the constant northern star of reason, and framing this as a story about how much unreasonable Republicans fail to agree with him.
Besides scoring a few cheap hits against Republicans at a time of grave national concern about childhood diseases, and setting up some talking points for future reference during the 2016 presidential campaign, the goal here is to offload the anti-vaxxers onto Republicans, when in truth that’s not where most of them hang their political hats. Have a look at the map of where measles cases are popping up:
You won’t see this map in any of the media’s scary stories today about the GOP pushing country towards an epidemic. pic.twitter.com/BEHLxhjlhk
— Elliott Schwartz (@elliosch) February 3, 2015
The Hollywood Reporter was quite blunt in September about who incubated the whooping-cough outbreak that swept across California: “Hollywood’s Vaccine Wars: L.A.’s ‘Entitled’ Westsiders Behind City’s Epidemic.” Whooping cough is another bug that was on the ropes by 2000 but came roaring back with the help of anti-vaxxers, specifically “wealthy Westside kids – particularly those attending exclusive, entertainment-industry-favored child care centers, preschools, and kindergartens,” whose parents submitted personal belief exemption paperwork with astounding frequency, resulting in an immunization rate comparable to “developing countries like Chad and South Sudan.”
In January 2011, Science Insider interviewed Seth Mnookin, author of a book on the vaccine-autism scare called The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear, and asked him about the “perception that vaccine refusal is especially common among affluent, well-educated, politically liberal parents.”
Mnookin spoke about fear of the unknown represented by autism versus the seemingly prosaic business of protecting children from schoolyard infections — a problem grown relatively minute in the public mind due to the very success of immunization programs. He also linked it to the organic-foods movement and distrust of bio-science among fashionable left-wing elites, relating a comment from a public-health official that he at first took to be a joke: to find areas with above-average levels of vaccine noncompliance, “take a map and put a pin wherever there’s a Whole Foods.”
Most caustically, he accused liberal anti-vaxxers of harboring an entitlement mentality: “Not vaccinating your child is basically saying I deserve to rely on the herd immunity that exists in a population. At the most basic level it’s saying I believe vaccines are potentially harmful, and I want other people to vaccinate so I don’t have to. And for people to hide under this and say, ‘Oh, it’s just a personal decision,’ it’s being dishonest. It’s a personal decision in the way drunk driving is a personal decision. It has the potential to affect everyone around you.”
But now it’s time for the media to transform them all into a Republican constituency, while holding up Obama and Clinton as the luminous souls of sweet reason. The most grimly amusing aspect of this is that elite liberal anti-vaxxers probably won’t even have to change their habits to confirm with the rhetoric of their dear leaders. Republicans can sabotage this media operation by responding the way Ben Carson did, without asking for an opportunity to clarify their remarks later. It is possible to hold an informed and detailed debate about vaccination schedules, or the limits of what government and business entities can require of citizens in return for entry into public spaces, but five-minute interviews with journalists who vote 90% Democrat is not the place for them.