Move over Michele Bachmann. Here comes the 2016 Republican presidential field on the scientifically indisputable but ideologically fraught issue of vaccination.
You may recall Bachmann’s campaign implosion in 2011, when the then-Minnesota congresswoman warned of “very dangerous consequences” of the HPV vaccine, citing a woman whose daughter “suffered mental retardation as a result.”
This week, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul performed a full Bachmann, with a Lazio twist (Rick Lazio, the New York congressman whose 2000 Senate campaign against Hillary Clinton foundered after an overaggressive debate performance).
Paul proved that a medical degree provides no inoculation against scientific illiteracy, suggesting that vaccines could cause “profound mental disorders.” And he made Lazio look, well, gentlemanly, instructing CNBC’s Kelly Evans to “calm down a bit here, Kelly” and, finger to lips, shushing her in midsentence during a discussion on tax policy.
Yes, he actually said “shhh.” And, yes, you can almost hear Hillary Clinton laughing in anticipatory delight. Rarely has a single interview offered double grounds for presidential disqualification. Paul shot himself first in one foot and then the other.
Monday’s Republican vaccination follies began with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose gaffe ended up seeming rather statesmanlike after he was out-crazied by Paul.
Christie, on a European tour to spiff up his foreign policy credentials, was asked whether parents should have their children vaccinated.
“We vaccinate ours, and so, you know, that’s the best expression I can give you of my opinion,” Christie said. “You know it’s much more important what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official. And that’s what we do. But 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.”
Whoa — this is the same Chris Christie who had no hesitation about imposing mandatory, and medically unnecessary, quarantines on health-care workers returning from Ebola-ravaged countries?
Quarantine Christie was happy to spout off about governors’ responsibility to protect public safety. Now, Vaccination Christie is all about parental choice versus public officials. Christie is consistent only in that he was against the best scientific evidence both times.
You know Christie had a problem because his office in Trenton issued a swift clarification: “The governor believes vaccines are an important public health protection and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated.”
Paul made Christie look like Jonas Salk. “I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines,” he told Evans. “I’m not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they are a good thing. But I think the parent should have some input. The state doesn’t own your children. Parents own the children, and it’s an issue of freedom and public health.”
Where to start? For one, Dr. Paul, confusing correlation with causation. For another, ignoring the overwhelming scientific evidence refuting suspicions of vaccine-induced autism or other disorders.
And then there is Paul’s creepy phrasing about who “owns” children. Um, no one? Government and parents play a dual role — not in ownership of children, but in protecting them. And there are broad categories in which government (that is, society as a whole) has long decided, correctly, that child safety cannot solely be left to parental discretion.
Thus, from the moment they leave the hospital, children must be buckled into car seats and later into seat belts. They must attend school. They cannot purchase cigarettes or alcohol, or work extended hours or in unsafe occupations.
If anything, vaccination presents an easier case for trumping parental rights, not just because the safety concerns are so overblown but because the risk of failure to immunize extends beyond the individual child.
In some (rare) cases, vaccines don’t work. In others, children and adults have underlying medical conditions, leaving their immune systems too compromised to be safely vaccinated. One family’s irrational decision not to vaccinate threatens other families’ children as well.
The current debate is useful not just because of the measles outbreak that began in California and is spreading alarmingly. The conversation will help illuminate would-be presidents’ attitudes about the proper roles of both science (how to assess the evidence on climate change, for example) and government (when it should step in, when it should leave individuals alone).
At the moment, anyway, this episode also demonstrates that, as big as it is, the GOP presidential field enjoys no herd immunity from ideological blindness.