Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul on Thursday dismissed the commotion caused last week by his statement that most vaccinations should be voluntary, a clumsy messaging misstep that led many critics to ask if he is ready for the national glare of a presidential campaign.
“I do think that vaccines are a good idea. I’ve been vaccinated, my kids have been vaccinated,” Paul said during a laidback question-and-answer session hosted by Lincoln Labs in Washington. “I don’t have any sort of stubborn opposition or any unscientific or unfounded belief that vaccines are bad.”
The two-day Lincoln Labs event — titled “Reboot Congress: Get S*#T Done" — was hosted at the Chamber of Commerce in Washington and sought to bring together business and political leaders to discuss issues facing the technology industry. But despite the event’s clear tech focus, the elephant in the room was Paul’s presidential ambitions, which last week hit several bumps following a wave of negative media attention.
Set against the backdrop of a national measles outbreak, political leaders and public health leaders accused Paul of being irresponsible. The barrage of negative media attention first focused on the Kentucky senator's call for vaccinations to be voluntary but quickly intensified as Paul tried to temper the ensuing firestorm. At one point the GOP senator shushed a female reporter during a live television interview and told her to "calm down."
"I’ve heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines," Paul said at the time. "I’m not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they’re a good thing. But I think parents should have some input. The state doesn’t own your children, parents own the children and it is an issue of freedom and public health."
It was with that in mind that TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington, who was moderating the Q&A, decided to ask Paul about vaccines.
“I want to talk about vaccines and I was told … if you’re going to do it, do it at the end. So I’m going to go right into it,” joked Arrington, inviting laughter from the audience in the half-empty ballroom.
“You don’t want to be shushed, do you?” Paul joked.
Turning more serious, Paul sought to clarify his comments but refused to acknowledge that the controversy over his remarks was warranted. He stressed that he was not calling for radical changes to U.S. laws on vaccinations.
“The interesting thing about the debate is that there’s an easy answer to it, but when I gave the easy answer, people went crazy because they didn’t understand what the debate was about,” he said.
Paul said that the point he was trying to make was that Americans, in particular parents with children who have “profound disabilities,” are inclined to see a connection between vaccinations and the developments of those illnesses.
“Those who jumped all over me on this need to stand up and say what they’re for. If they asked the president, are you for a new federal law holding people down and vaccinating them? He’s not. And neither is anybody else who gave me a lot of grief over this,” he said.
Paul became slightly more reserved when asked if he is definitely running for president or not, coyly answering “maybe” and drawing laughter from the audience.
“Do you need a longer answer or is that good?” he quipped. "Part of the decision-making process is: Do you have a chance? Is the message resonating?
He added, "Because it’s not really a lot of fun.”