We have the first big policy fight of the 2016 presidential election, and it’s… vaccinations?
On Monday, Chris Christie and Rand Paul set off a firestorm of controversy in the political world when they cast doubt on the universal need for vaccinating children against communicable diseases. Following a recent measles outbreak in the United States, President Barack Obama encouraged parents to get their children immunization against the disease. So of course, if Obama is for something, then the laws of physics state that a few Republicans running for president must be opposed to it. Christie and Paul raised their hands to disagree.
“It’s more important what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official,” Christie reportedly said on vaccinations. “I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well.” Paul decided to go even further by suggesting he knew children that developed mental disorders after receiving vaccinations (and remember, Paul is a doctor). Paul was roundly criticized for seeming to give credence to the junk science that links vaccinations to issues like autism, and spent the rest of the day in damage control.
Christie’s and Paul’s comments led to nearly every politician in America weighing in on where they stand on vaccines. Here’s how just a few of them responded:
Ben Carson: The doctor weighed in with an adamant defense of vaccination: “Certain communicable diseases have been largely eradicated by immunization policies in this country and we should not allow those diseases to return by foregoing safe immunization programs, for philosophical, religious, or other reasons when we have the means to eradicate them.”
Bobby Jindal: His official office released a statement encouraging parents to vaccinate their children.
Marco Rubio: He strongly pushed back against Paul’s comments, saying there’s no link between vaccines and autism.
Ted Cruz: Speaking to USA Today, he responded to the controversy with, “Children of course should be vaccinated.” He left open the idea that states should allow exceptions for parents’ choice, but he notably insisted that vaccinations were an important must for children.
Hillary Clinton: Sent out this Tweet, saying “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids. #GrandmothersKnowBest”
George Pataki (He’s apparently thinking of running now too): He had the best quote of the day with “I thought that issue was resolved at Valley Forge when Washington vaccinated his troops against small pox.”
It’s surprising how the Republican field broke out on the topic. In recent years, high-profile Republicans seem to enjoy playing the game of one-upmanship to appeal to the increasingly radical right. And some Republicans did.
Newly elected Senator Thom Thillis (R-NC) suggested health departments shouldn’t even require restaurant staff to wash their hands before handling customers’ food. Representative Sean Duffy (R-WI) criticized those parents who give their children all recommended vaccinations as not as “well-read.” He claimed, “I know what morals and values are right for my children.” How a family’s particular moral values help their young children fight off dangerous diseases like Rubella is unclear.
But aside from Christie and Paul, most of the presidential hopefuls stayed clear of that type of rhetoric. That had to be frustrating for Christie, who must have thought he wouldn’t be so alone on the issue. How many people would have guessed that Jindal, Carson and Cruz would sound the most rational and restrained on a hot-button conservative topic?
Christie really stepped in this one, in more ways than one. After his initial comment, his office clarified that “with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated.” That opens him up to a whole new line of questioning. Which specific diseases does he think we should vaccinate for? Hepatitis B? For mumps? What about Polio? That’s what he could face on his next campaign swing, including inquiries to his history of courting anti-vaxxers. It also screams political pandering when you essentially say, “If people don’t want to vaccinate their children, that’s fine. Oh, except for that disease that’s sickened hundreds of Americans this week. That one you should have.”
It’s not too surprising that the presidential race has entered silly season already, though this particular issue may only last another news cycle or two. What is surprising is how badly Christie and Paul handled it. They won’t last long in today’s rough-and-tumble 24-hour news cycle of national campaigning with many more performances like these.
by Pat Rynard