The Great GOP Vaccine Debate of 2015 is Over, and Vaccines Won

Rand Paul walks back on a limb.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) leaves the weekly Republican Senate policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol February 3, 2015 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It was the third-to-last question at today's House leadership press conference, and you could tell by the eye-rolls and groans how it was going to go.

"Mr. Speaker, do you believe that parents should be required to vaccinate their children?" asked ABC News reporter Jeff Zeleny.

"I don't know that we need another law," said Boehner, "but I do believe that all children should be vaccinated."

Simple, blunt, and suddenly newsy. Since Monday morning, flacks for the many Republicans considering presidential bids had alternately juggled and ignored an unexpected question: Did the candidate think that vaccines should be required for children, or could parents use discretion? Sometimes there was a follow-up: Did the candidate think that vaccines caused autism?

Sometimes an issue like this can turn from something obscure into a conservative litmus test. See Jeb Bush and common core, or see Chris Christie and public transportation. But the vaccine "issue" was snuffed out quickly, after conservatives saw the backlash to vaccine gaffes from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Since last night, every Republican who went on the record about vaccines took a pro-coercion position.

"Absolutely, all children in America should be vaccinated," said Florida Senator Marco Rubio. (This made more news than his much-anticipated Cuba policy hearing.)

"Children, of course, should be vaccinated,” Texas Senator Ted Cruz told USA Today. “This issue is largely silliness stirred up by the media.

Dr. Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon who's often battled media perceptions of him as a political kook, told Buzzfeed that vaccines had eradicated some killer diseases, and that Americans 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."

The responses weren't coordinated, but they had a herd effect. One, they inoculated candidates from stories like the one that led the New York Times on Tuesday morning. "The vaccination controversy is a twist on an old problem for the Republican Party: how to approach matters that have largely been settled among scientists but are not widely accepted by conservatives," wrote Jeremy W. Peters and Richard Perez-Pena.

Two, the swift embrace of vaccines made Paul look like he'd gotten over his skis. His Monday CNBC interview, which led off with him saying he'd heard of "many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines," was a PR disaster. "Let's hope the senator misspoke," wrote Reason magazine science editor Ron Bailey. The Washington Free Beacon, a reliable source of bad news for Paul, took the occasion to dig through a 2009 interview the senator (then still a candidate) gave to Alex Jones's InfoWars.

"The first sort of thing you see with martial law is mandates, and they’re talking about making it mandatory," Paul said, referring to the contemporary debate about whether health workers should be required to get H1N1 shots. "I’m not going to tell people who think it’s a bad idea that they have to take it because everybody should be allowed to make their own health care decisions and that’s the problem with allowing more and more government."

By the end of Tuesday, Paul had un-rung the bell. He invited Peters, the co-author of the NYT piece that announced a "vaccine debate" in the GOP, to watch him get a booster shot.

"There’s 400 headlines now that say ‘Paul says vaccines cause mental disorders,'” Paul said. "That’s not what I said. I said I’ve heard of people who’ve had vaccines and they see a temporal association and they believe that."

This was not much of a step away from the comments that had gotten Paul in trouble; still, he had returned to the comfortable position of insisting the media got him wrong.


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