As the measles outbreak continues to spread, political leaders with an eye on the White House in 2016 spent much of the week jumping into, and then trying to bail themselves out of, the vaccine debate.
Some brushed the issue off as an unnecessary media circus, but it’s worth taking a look at its deeper political meaning. Here are five things the vaccine politics kerfuffle of 2015 tells us about the emerging field of presidential candidates for 2016.
1. Vaccination politics are a problem for Republicans — not Democrats.
Conservatives have been pointing out that parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids are more likely to be rich, liberal “purists” who buy organic food for their kids than anti-government Tea Partiers. There is some evidence for that argument. While all 50 states require vaccinations for kids before entering school, some states allow parents to opt out of vaccinating their children based on “personal beliefs.” And dark blue California, where the current measles outbreak began, is one of those “opt-out” states. The red states of Mississippi and West Virginia do not allow exemptions — and they have the highest rates of immunization.
And yes, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did both raise questions about whether vaccines might have a link to autism. But that was back in 2008, two years before the one study that raised the link between vaccines and autism was debunked and retracted. Today, the debate about whether or not to vaccinate is just not the burning political issue among the Democratic Party’s grass roots that it is for Republicans. The GOP is where skepticism about climate science is strongest. So is support for teaching alternatives to evolution. Republicans are more likely to see issues like mandatory vaccines as a question of individual liberty. And that’s why you saw so many potential 2016 GOP candidates flailing about this week as they tried to reach out to the conservative base of their party and appeal to the mainstream at the same time.
2. When you’re hot, you’re hot.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is having a great month. He got rave reviews for his appearance at Rep. Steve King’s Iowa Freedom Summit. And he was unequivocal about the need for parents to vaccinate their kids. No need for him to pander to the anti-vaccinators!
And Jeb Bush — widely considered the top “establishment” pick of the field — wisely stayed out of it when asked about vaccines in Detroit on Wednesday. “Parents have a responsibility to make sure their children are protected. Over and out,” was all he would say. And why should he say anything more? He’s doing just fine rolling out his expected presidential bid with big policy speeches like the one in Detroit and hoovering up money for what’s expected to be a blockbuster fundraising quarter.
Was it a coincidence that the two potential GOP candidates who are doing the best right now had the easiest time handling the hot potato of vaccine politics? Maybe not.
3. It’s not easy being a libertarian.
Rand Paul (as in, Dr. Rand Paul) had the hardest time of all navigating the cross currents of the vaccine issue.
He came out squarely against mandatory vaccination, which probably appealed to libertarian-leaning primary voters, but then he said he had “heard of” children who wound up with “profound mental disorders” after vaccinations. Although he later posted a picture on Twitter of himself getting a booster shot, he earned a round of scathing editorials including one in the Washington Post which questioned his “judgement and fitness for higher office.” The Post included New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in that assessment.
4. Chris Christie can’t catch a break.
The charismatic, straight-talking Christie was once considered the answer to the GOP’s problems. But that was a long time ago.
This week, coverage of Christie refusing to talk to the press on his trip to Europe followed stories about his penchant for luxury travel. Christie had no qualms about placing a mandatory quarantine on health workers who may have come in contact with Ebola, but on vaccines he was all over the place.
“You know, it’s much more important what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official,” the governor of New Jersey said. Later his office clarified his response, saying, “There’s no question kids should be vaccinated.”
This is becoming a Christie pattern. For a candidate who is selling his blunt, “authentic” leadership style, Christie has been awfully reluctant to say where he stands on foreign policy, immigration and, now, vaccines.
5. Being the only grandmother in the race has its privileges.
Hillary Clinton weighed in with a tweet that poked the “vaccine deniers”:
Anytime Clinton can stand apart from the Republican free for all, instead of being their one and only punching bag, is a good day for her. And she has an advantage that only a candidate with no real opposition for the nomination can enjoy.
Clinton’s response shows why this issue is much more problematic for Republicans than Democrats. A Pew Research Center poll shows that in 2009 71% of both parties favored vaccination. By 2014 Democratic support for vaccines went up to 76%, Republican support dropped to 65%. On issues like this one, Democratic base voters are much closer to mainstream public opinion than Republicans are. This week’s political scramble over vaccines reminds us that the 2016 nominating battle will not be a fight for the soul of the Democratic party, but it will be for the Republicans.