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The GOP’s halting, uneven journey toward becoming the anti-vaccine mandate party

Or in this case, toward opposing something that isn’t a vaccine mandate at all.

After initially touting coronavirus vaccines and mask mandates, some GOP governors are now shying away from pandemic mandates. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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There are a couple of perplexing things about the political opposition to the Biden administration’s decision to force large employers to mandate coronavirus vaccines or weekly testing — and vaccine mandates more broadly.

One is that our country has been mandating vaccines for a very long time, and the Pfizer vaccine now has the same status as those other vaccines: full authorization by the Food and Drug Administration. The Republicans who today say vaccines should be a matter of choice have done relatively little over the years to fight mandates of other such vaccines.

The second is that, for all the pushback on vaccine mandates, this isn’t truly a vaccine mandate at all; it’s a mandate to either get the vaccine or get tested weekly. You could even call it a testing mandate with a vaccination opt-out, if you wanted to. People who don’t want the vaccine needn’t get injected with anything or forfeit their job. To the extent this is “authoritarianism,” it’s the tyranny of a brief-if-relatively-frequent nasal swab.

Many things have conspired to bring us to this moment in American politics, in which more than 600,000 deaths are apparently insufficient in the minds of some for such a step. But perhaps the turning point came in Texas in 2007.

Out of the blue, a conservative Republican governor named Rick Perry signed an executive order. The order made his state the first in the country to mandate a vaccine for a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer, the human papillomavirus (or HPV), for girls entering the sixth grade.

The response was swift, and the GOP-controlled state legislature soon overrode him. But the conservative concerns often pertained less to the safety of the vaccine or the appropriateness of the such mandates — as they do today — and more to both the limited scale of the problem and to the idea that the vaccine would encourage promiscuity in young girls.

Perry backed down, but he continued to defend his decision — that is, until 2011, when he was seeking a promotion and it became rather inconvenient.

By then, Perry was the GOP’s supposed white-knight presidential candidate. And one of the earliest issues that his opponents used to knock him down a peg or two was the HPV vaccine mandate. Perry renounced his past defenses of the order within hours of launching his campaign. The next month at a debate, one of the candidates he had passed in the polls, then-Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), wrongly suggested the vaccine might cause “mental retardation.”

The writing was on the wall when it came to how such vaccine mandates might play with the most conservative parts of the base that had been taking over the party since the tea party wave of 2010. And since then, the GOP’s position on vaccines has drifted haltingly toward a stronger anti-mandate posture.

While some GOP politicians toe the line between advocating for vaccines and protecting individual freedoms, legislative barriers to vaccination still exist. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

In the years since, a number of states have debated vaccine mandates, with vaccine and mandate skeptics pushing legislation opposed or shunned by more prominent Republicans. Some of those same Republicans have now toed the line in the party’s united opposition to Biden’s policy.

South Dakota held a heated vaccine mandate debate in 2016, when then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s (R) administration successfully pushed for a meningitis vaccine mandate — but not before it nearly failed in a state House committee, where most Republicans voted against it.

In 2019, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) fought an effort from some state legislative Republicans to make it easier to get exemptions for other vaccine mandates. “I think it’s important for people to know that we are pro-vaccination in the state of Arizona,” Ducey said at the time. “Vaccinations are good for our kids and helpful for public health.”

Ducey last month banned local governments from requiring coronavirus vaccinations for their employees, and on Thursday he decried Biden’s “dictatorial approach,” saying, “The vaccine is and should be a choice.”

There was a similar push in Iowa in 2019 to add an exemption for “conscientiously held beliefs,” but Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) said she supported the existing exemptions on the books, and the effort wound up fizzling out.

On Thursday, Reynolds also denounced the Biden administration’s move, even though it includes religious and disability-related exemptions and a testing option, saying, “I believe and trust in Iowans to make the best health decisions for themselves and their families.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s (R) administration in 2019 also expressed skepticism about a bill that would demand schools post information about exemptions for vaccine mandates. DeWine has also recently fought against a GOP effort to ban businesses from instituting their own vaccine mandates.

On Friday, he called Biden’s moved “a mistake” and said that “people and business owners should make their own decisions about vaccination.”

Similar language has been employed by many other GOP senators and governors, including Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb (R). “I strongly believe it’s not the state or federal government’s role to issue a vaccine mandate upon citizens & private businesses,” Holcomb said in a tweet Friday.

But back in 2017, Holcomb signed a bill mandating that students at Indiana’s public colleges and universities be vaccinated against meningitis. And as recently as June, he bucked conservatives who wanted him to stop Indiana University from requiring proof of coronavirus vaccination for all students and employees.

There is nuance in all of this. Some have suggested their quarrel is not with vaccine mandates, per se, but with the federal government mandating them or compelling private businesses to mandate them. Others had said previously this was about the coronavirus vaccines only being authorized for emergency use.

But then the Pfizer vaccine was fully authorized, and we saw almost no shift in the GOP’s anti-mandate stance. We’ve also seen a pretty steady GOP effort to prevent even the mandates forged by those private businesses on their own or by local and state governments. And the prevailing talking point here — that vaccines should be a choice and that even state government shouldn’t mandate them — doesn’t really apply across the board to other vaccines. (It also ignores the fact that mandates aren’t just about government controlling lives; vaccines need widespread adoption to truly stomp out a virus like the coronavirus.)

In July, a spokesman for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) responded to a question about whether the senator also opposed other such vaccine mandates that were already in place in Texas, saying: “Of course not. Sen. Cruz has been clear that he opposes covid vaccine mandates.”

That seems to be the uniting principle here. But if you’re going to oppose a mandate for a fully authorized vaccine, it would make more sense if you opposed them more broadly. If you’re going to isolate the one that happens to protect against a virus that has killed more than 600,000 people since the start of 2020, that seems like a strange place to draw the line — unless you have a reason you’re not enunciating for why this one is different. Federalist concerns are perhaps valid, but we’ve seen almost no Republicans say even states or local governments should be allowed to do this.

And the drawing of that line is somewhat more curious now, given that, unlike mandates for those other vaccines, this one isn’t strictly a vaccine mandate at all.