UPDATE: A few hours after this story went up, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul appeared on CNBC and was asked to clarify if he thought most vaccines should be voluntary.
"I guess being for freedom would be really unusual?" Paul said, sarcastically. "I guess I don't understand the point, as to why that would be controversial."
As he clarified, he mostly stuck to what he'd said on talk radio today. Only toward the end of his answer did he explain the dangers, as he saw them, in vaccinating children.
"I've heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines," said Paul. "I'm not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they're a good thing. But I think the parents should have some input."
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's slightly-too-expansive answer to questions about the measles vaccine has sent oppo researchers scrambling. What, if anything, have the many people angling to be president said about vaccines? Were any of these guys tripped up in the early days of the autism/vaccine panic, when even the 2008 presidential nominees dabbled in conspiracy theory?
The question's especially thrilling for Democratic operatives, because, for all they know, voters skeptical of government have pushed candidates into skepticism about vaccines. In a new study from Ohio State University, researchers found that attitudes toward the 2009 swine flu vaccine were colored by what people thought of government. "It's not that Republicans reject vaccination because of their conservative views or exposure to certain media," OSU Professor Kent Schwirian said in a statement. "It was their lack of confidence in the government to deal with the swine flu crisis that was driving their anti-vaccination views."
The default position of most Republicans, and Republican candidates, is that individuals can be trusted and the government can't. How does that manifest when Republicans are asked about vaccine mandates? Kentucky Senator Rand Paul gave a demonstration on Monday when conservative radio host Laura Ingraham asked him to respond to the measles story.
"I'm not anti-vaccine at all, but particularly, most of them ought to be voluntary," said Paul. "What happens if you have somebody not wanting to take the smallpox vaccine and it ruins it for everybody else? I think there are times in which there can be some rules, but for the first part it ought to be voluntary."
Ingraham didn't ask which vaccines could be voluntary, but Paul was ready with examples. He had questioned Texas's push to give children the HPV shot. He wasn't comfortable when his own kids were offered Hepatitis B shots. "I didn't like 'em getting 10 vaccines at once," he said. "I actually delayed my kids' vaccines and had 'em staggered over time."
"Smart," said Ingraham. "I should have done that."
This discussion benefited from years of backlash to the so-called anti-vaxxer movement. Paul was careful not to question the effectiveness of the vaccines, only the regime that delivered them en masse. His father, who ran for president as a Republican in 2008 when anti-vaxxers were at a sort of apex, was not so circumspect. In a 2007 video, Ron Paul was asked about the vaccines "forced on children," and his answer echoed some of what the harshest vaccine critics said.
"I think the doctors have gotten to the point where they give too many too often," said Paul, who, like his son, is trained in medicine. "They bunch 'em together—four, five of these vaccines together—and they overwhelm the immune system. You know, in a free society, it would be assumed that the individual makes up his own mind. That shouldn't be a condition of going anywhere or any place. If you didn't take the vaccine for polio, you're not a danger to me. You're a danger to yourself."
Eight years later, Paul's empathy for the anti-vaxxers is almost quaint. Libertarians have debated among themselves about whether the public-health benefits of vaccine mandates overwhelm the principle of resisting government coercion. There's considerable worry that if resistance to vaccinations were to become an anti-government cause, its popularity could mushroom on the right. If the next news cycle or two will lead to public shaming of conservatives with qualms about vaccine mandates, it may well backfire.