Chris Christie is in England, because like so many candidates before him, he knows that the way to show American voters that you will make wise foreign policy decisions is to demonstrate that you have, in fact, visited another country. And while he’s there, he managed to make news by taking a position that is not only controversial but spectacularly wrong, on the topic of the spreading measles outbreak caused by unvaccinated children:
“Mary Pat and I have had our children vaccinated and we think that it’s an important part of being sure we protect their health and the public health,” Christie told reporters here Monday. But the likely Republican presidential candidate added: “I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.”
And it gets worse: Christie said, “It’s more important what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official.”
No, no, a thousand times no. It’s great that Christie vaccinated his children, but it’s also completely irrelevant. And what he thinks as a parent is absolutely not more important than what he thinks as a public official. Want to know why? Because he’s a public official. That means that he has a responsibility for the health and welfare of the nine million people who live in his state. I am so tired of politicians who say, “My most important title is Mom/Dad.” It isn’t. When you decided to run for public office, you accepted that there would be times when you’d have to act in the public interest regardless of your family’s interest, or your friends’ interest, or the interest of the town you grew up in. When you took the oath of office you made a covenant that you’d work on behalf of the larger community. The fact that you’re a parent can help you understand other parents and their concerns, but it doesn’t change your primary responsibility.
One can certainly express some measure of understanding toward anti-vaxxers while still holding that their views are not just mistaken but profoundly dangerous. Fear for the health of one’s children is a powerful force. As a general matter there’s nothing wrong with distrusting the pharmaceutical industry. One can understand how someone might end up with such views. That being said, there’s about as much real evidence that vaccines cause autism as there is that volcanoes cause post-nasal drip.
So the responsible thing for a governor to say would be, “As a parent, I get where they’re coming from. But as a public official it’s my responsibility to say that they’re wrong, and in their error they aren’t just threatening their own children’s health, they’re threatening the entire community.” You don’t have to think parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids should be arrested, but their ideas ought to be condemned for the harm they do. If Chris Christie has sympathy for them as a father, that’s fine. But he has a more important job to do.
After getting some criticism over his initial remarks, Christie clarified through a spokesperson that he believes all kids should be vaccinated. Which is good, and I hope that this episode provides a lesson for him and other officeholders. Politicians are always trying to tell us that they’re just regular folks like us, and all you need to succeed in high office is common sense and a strong memory of your humble roots. It’s baloney. We choose them for those offices because we need them to make complex and difficult decisions that require more than common sense. We don’t try to elect the best dad to be governor or president, we try to elect the person who’ll be the best governor or president.
Are Republicans more likely than Democrats to fall into this regular-guy routine? Politicians from both parties do it, but the GOP has certainly embraced know-nothingism on other issues. “I’m not a scientist” has become the standard Republican way to say we shouldn’t do anything to address climate change. For a long time they have played the identity politics game, which requires demonstrating that you’re “one of us” and your opponent is alien and contemptible, with particular vigor. That’s an argument that denies there’s anything special about public office; all we need is to find a candidate with “[insert our state here] values,” and everything will be fine.
But it won’t, and it would be nice if the people vying for office stopped pretending otherwise.