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Opinion Democrats, don’t cave to Republicans on military vaccinations

A member of the U.S. military receives a coronavirus vaccination in 2021. (U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Anthony Nelson Jr./Department of Defense/AP)

Republicans will take control of the House of Representatives soon — but they haven’t yet. Nevertheless, in the lame-duck session before the new Congress, Democrats might be about to cave to GOP demands and eliminate the military’s coronavirus vaccine requirement.

This would constitute an act of malpractice whose foolishness is hard to overstate. Substantively, it’s indefensible. Politically, it’s idiotic. And it does not bode well for how Democrats will handle the next two years of divided government.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) claimed on Sunday that he has secured an agreement from President Biden to reverse the vaccine requirement, which Republicans have long hated, as part of the roughly $800 billion defense authorization bill that is expected to pass both houses before the end of the year. The White House denies that Biden agreed to anything, saying only that the two discussed the matter.

But Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chair of the House Armed Services Committee, has suggested that ditching coronavirus vaccines might wind up in the bill. CNN has reported that the bill is likely to eliminate the requirement.

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The Republican demand is willfully ignorant not just of the military’s vaccination policy but also of its entire ethos. “No servicemember should have to choose between serving our country and a shot,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, echoing a frequent GOP claim. In fact, that’s what every servicemember does. To join the military, you must be vaccinated against adenovirus, meningitis, hepatitis, influenza, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, tetanus and chickenpox. Don’t like it? Then you don’t have to join up.

You’ll also have to have periodic boosters as necessary, and depending on where you’re deployed, you might need to get additional vaccines. There are narrow medical and religious exceptions that require extensive administrative review in order to be granted, but you don’t get to say, “I don’t want this vaccine, because this guy I watch on YouTube said Bill Gates put a microchip in it.”

The military is a hierarchical organization that, for better or worse, puts an extraordinary amount of emphasis on following orders. If you’re a free spirit who wants to decide for yourself what you’re going to wear, how you’ll style your hair, what time you’ll get up in the morning, or what vaccines you want to get, the military probably isn’t for you.

This also isn’t some arbitrary edict with no practical purpose. Covid-19 has killed more than a million Americans, and even for those who are young and healthy enough to survive infection, it can be debilitating and have long-term health effects. It’s passed through the air, and given that military service often requires being in close quarters with large numbers of people for extended periods of time, there is great potential for the virus to spread. The more it does, the more harm is done to the military’s ability to do its job.

The political case for Democrats standing up to Republicans is even clearer. Instead of negotiating over this question, Democrats can employ this one weird trick: Say no.

This would not require the execution of some intricate four-dimensional political strategy. Democrats’ message should be simple: We’re ready to pass the military spending bill. If Republicans want to vote against it, they should go right ahead. If they want to try to shut down the military to satisfy some conspiracy theorists in their base, they’re welcome to try.

If Democrats just said no, Republican opposition would crumble. Sure, a few of them might still vote against the bill. But there would be more than enough votes to pass it.

While two-thirds of Republicans say they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, it’s the most extreme paranoid conspiracy theorists who have the greatest objections — and that’s the group that Republican politicians are pandering to.

But they also believe deeply that we should throw every dollar we can at the military. When you hear Republicans oppose “out-of-control spending,” what they mean is that they want to cut funding for programs they don’t like. If Democrats force their hand, all but a tiny number of them will vote for the defense authorization bill, just as they always do.

So Democrats should welcome this fight. As so often happens, they have Republicans in an awkward position, but because Democrats are so timid, they have convinced themselves that they’re the politically vulnerable ones when the opposite is true.

This is going to happen a lot in the next two years. Republicans are already planning to threaten to shut down the government and even cause the United States to default on its debts to extort brutal cuts to domestic spending programs. Navigating those showdowns and averting disaster will require subtle strategizing on Democrats’ part.

But this confrontation is easy. Republicans aren’t threatening a program Democrats love. They’re threatening their own favored kind of spending. And Democrats are still in charge of Congress, so they can impose the terms. Democrats, just say no.

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