A rare moment of clarification occurred Monday morning, in different settings and an ocean apart: President Barack Obama instructed parents to vaccinate their children just as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seemed to cast doubt upon their requirement. “The science is indisputable,” Obama said*. Parents should have a “measure of choice,” Christie said.
Just like that, the issue of vaccinations appeared to splinter along the agonizingly familiar partisan lines that divide everything from climate change to Ebola to whether the New England Patriots cheated.
The truth, as always, is more complicated. Christie endorsed vaccines and said he had vaccinated his own children. But he introduced a few caveats that, if you’re part of a growing anti-vaccination movement in the United States, sounded like one of the highest levels of notarizations of your cause so far. It was also the exact opposite of what the health community wanted to hear in the wake of a measles outbreak that now numbers over 100 cases in fourteen states.
Christie’s remarks were followed by a report that Iowa Freedom Summit speaker Carly Fiorina had made a similar statement last week, an indication that the GOP 2016 field, even its establishment flank, was beginning to see an incentive in expressing vaccination doubts.
This is, as some pointed out, odd given the scrambled partisan leanings of anti-vaxxers:
ATTN GOP, The #antivaxxer's are NOT your base. They're vegan latte sippers who hate vaccine mandates but support birth control mandates
— Michael Graham (@IAMMGraham) February 2, 2015
That’s putting it far too strongly, but it’s not essentially wrong. Many of the recent whooping cough outbreaks have occurred in largely affluent, more liberal communities. Meanwhile, opposition to requiring parents to vaccinate is highest among millennials than any other age group. Which is to say that unlike evolution or climate change, on which a person’s opinion can be more or less predicted by their voting habits, vaccines fail to break down along the traditional party lines; some on the right look askance at the nanny statism of health requirements, while a group on the left engages in what might as well be called immuno-snowflakism, and a third independent strain suffers from a Strangelovian fear of toxins.
Where there’s bipartisan opposition, there might also be bipartisan consensus. Sure enough, despite an increase in anti-vaccination during the Obama administration, one that’s been more located on the right, it remains an unpopular position, with strong majorities favoring vaccination requirements:
So why are establishment GOP figures backing away from a bipartisan no-brainer? Most likely Rick Perry’s debacle with his state mandate of HPV vaccines is fresh in their minds. After getting pummeled by the rest of the 2012 primary field over his decision as governor, Perry reversed himself, an early flub of what became campaign flameout. Not surprisingly, the HPV vaccine was invoked in Fiorina’s hedging on vaccines:
“I think there’s a big difference between — just in terms of the mountains of evidence we have — a vaccination for measles and a vaccination when a girl is 10 or 11 or 12 for cervical cancer just in case she’s sexually active at 11. So, I think it’s hard to make a blanket statement about it. I certainly can understand a mother’s concerns about vaccinating a 10-year-old.”
But Fiorina went on to second-guess the necessity of other vaccines as well. “I think vaccinating for measles makes a lot of sense,” she said. “But that’s me. I do think parents have to make those choices. I mean, I got measles as a kid. We used to all get measles… I got chicken pox, I got measles, I got mumps.”
The arguments against this are legion — it allows affluent children to ride herd immunity while endangering other children around them, for one — which is why Christie’s office followed up with a statement very unequivocally endorsing vaccines. (Christie’s also a sitting governor, while Fiorina, without official responsibilities, is free to wander away from the tour.)
For the moment, it looks as though this issue will re-situate as a minor schism within the GOP primary field. If 2012 is any indication, structural incentives will encourage the type of doubt expressed this morning as candidates vie to out-conservative, and out anti-Obama, each other. But the wide consensus in favor of vaccinations offers a potential reward for any 2016 contender who wants to position herself as the general election candidate. On top of its electoral advantages, it might also preserve a sample of bipartisan congruence that could replicate itself: if we can agree on good science and the government’s role in implementing it here, who knows where it might spread?
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