The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The hyperbolic GOP reaction to Biden’s vaccine mandate shows why it’s necessary

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) answers questions during a news conference in Austin on June 16. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

If there was any doubt about the necessity of President Biden’s expanded vaccine mandate for millions of Americans, it was dispelled by the hyperbolic Republican reaction to his Thursday announcement. “Republicans explode with fury,” noted Fox “News” Channel. Republican governors threatened to file suit to stop what Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) called ”this blatantly unlawful overreach.” Fox News accused Biden of being “an authoritarian” and declaring “war on millions of Americans.” Breitbart claims he went “full totalitarian” and the Federalist called it a “fascist move.”

Blinded by partisanship and populism, Republicans have lost all perspective. The crux of their argument — to the extent that they have one — is that the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has no right to tell companies with at least 100 employees that workers must either get tested weekly for covid-19 or present proof of vaccination. This is the same OSHA that has issued myriad regulations over the years governing such aspects of workplace safety as the placement of step bolts. (“The employer must ensure . . . step bolts are uniformly spaced at a vertical distance of not less than 12 inches (30 cm) and not more than 18 inches (46 cm) apart.”)

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I have no idea how many workers have been injured by misplaced step bolts — frankly, I’m not even sure what step bolts are — but I am guessing it is not many. I do know, however, how many Americans have been killed by covid-19: 655,000 and counting. If OSHA can protect against the menace of step bolts, I’m pretty sure it can protect against the deadliest pandemic in a century.

Perhaps the GOP simply objects to the government telling any business what to do? Except, oops, Republican governors and legislatures are doing precisely that when they tell private companies that they can’t ask for proof of vaccination. At least six red states — Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota and Texas — have prohibited most companies from demanding “vaccine passports.” So, apparently, Republicans think it’s okay for the government to force businesses to surrender to a deadly pandemic but it’s not okay for the government to mandate that businesses protect their employees and customers.

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Perhaps the most tone-deaf reaction came from Gov. Greg Abbott (R) of Texas, who just signed a law effectively outlawing abortion. He now takes his stand on “protecting Texans’ right to choose whether they get the COVID vaccine.” As Molly Jong-Fast of the Daily Beast tweeted: “So conservatives want to make sure that women can’t get abortions but they are also against vaccine mandates because ‘my body my choice?’ ”

It’s hard to take GOP protests against Biden’s announcement at face value given how widespread vaccine requirements already are. In Texas, for example, the state requires that any student attending any public or private school must show evidence of having received at least seven vaccines covering diseases such as polio, hepatitis, measles, mumps and rubella. Those seven vaccination requirements — which have helped banish once prevalent diseases such as polio — cause little controversy. So why is pushing for adults to get vaccinated for covid-19 such a flash point?

The problem is that covid-19 has been a politicized pandemic from the start. It broke out while Donald Trump was president, and he was terrified that it would tank the economy and his reelection chances. So he consistently played it down, claiming it would miraculously disappear and that it “affects virtually nobody.” His cult followers therefore felt compelled to echo his Panglossian outlook by falsely claiming that covid was no worse than the flu or promoting quack remedies such as hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin as miracle cures.

The results of all this covid denialism can be seen in vastly differing vaccination rates. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 86 percent of Democrats have gotten vaccinated but only 54 percent of Republicans. That, in turn, translates into rising numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the red states. Over the past 14 days, the United States has been losing an average of 1,579 people a day to covid-19. More than a third of those deaths (570 a day) are in just two red states: Florida and Texas. The daily number of deaths in Florida — which has one of the worst outbreaks in the world — is more than three times higher than in California and more than 10 times higher than in New York.

Republican governors don’t seem to mind killing their constituents in the name of a twisted theory of “medical freedom,” but that doesn’t mean the president of the United States is helpless to protect the life and well-being of its citizens. In fact, as Post contributing columnist Leana S. Wen argues, Biden still has not gone far enough — for example, he still needs to mandate proof of vaccination for airline and train passengers. But at least Biden has given up the hope that he could reason with covid-deniers and anti-vaxxers. The Republican reaction to his sensible mandate shows that much of the right is beyond the reach of reason. It is now time to use federal power to protect the most basic of civil rights — the right to life.