No more questions about vaccines, please.

Photographer: Carl Court/Getty Images

Christie and Paul Come Down With Measles

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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We aren't the stupid party. That was the word early this week from GOP central command. From now on, Republicans are four-square behind vaccinating children against deadly diseases. Welcome to the 19th century. Louis Pasteur is smiling down.

Sadly, Governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul, leading Republican lights and likely presidential candidates, didn't get the memo soon enough. They suffered a bout of hoof-in-mouth disease that led them to try to play nice with the activist anti-vaccine crowd (also known as: those most likely to vote in early 2016 caucuses and primaries). 

As they both now know, there's no vaccination against pandering going viral. The ensuing kerfuffle over their sympathy for those who would jeopardize the health of all to indulge a few is a lesson in the dangers of blowing a dog whistle. It is also a reminder of an older, simpler lesson: It pays to tell the truth.

You might expect sympathy for anti-vaxxers from the far right of the party. Christie, though, is supposed to be modern, with crossover appeal, and Paul is fashioning himself as a new, hipper kind of Republican who worries about drones and incarceration rates. 

Even as we received news Monday that an outbreak of measles had spread across 14 states, Christie was in London, on a trade mission for his state that was supposed to do double duty as an opportunity to burnish his foreign policy cred in preparation for 2016.

Instead, he wound up having to answer questions about whether parents should have to vaccinate their children. He said his four kids were vaccinated, but that "that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well. So that’s the balance that the government has to decide."

That laissez-faire approach plays well with the keep your hands off my guns, my textbooks and my kids constituency he may need for the Iowa caucuses, as well as some New Age liberals he'll never get, but not necessarily with the 99 percent of us who thought the disease had been eradicated in the U.S. Christie’s office was soon out with a correction, saying there was “no question kids should be vaccinated.” It was too late. The governor cancelled three news  conferences and shouted at reporters as he ignored them, “what part of no questions don’t you understand?”  Not quite the international statesman he had hoped to convey.

Instead, Christie looked like a science-denier -- and for a second time. In October, he rolled the political dice by imposing a mandatory quarantine on health-care workers returning from Ebola-stricken Africa, even though there was no medical necessity to do so. A nurse who was forced to spend four days in a tent at a Newark hospital ended up winning that particular skirmish for the hearts and minds.

This time, however, the damage to Christie was somewhat mitigated by Paul, whose take on vaccination made the New Jersey governor look like a spokesperson for the World Health Organization. 

Paul was on yet another journey into his own head when he mindlessly repeated rubbish from a discredited, even fraudulent, “research paper” claiming that vaccinations caused autism. His endorsement is particularly shameful given that Paul is himself a physician. His alma mater, the Duke University School of Medicine, probably could have done without the publicity.

Paul said he’s not anti-vaccine but “most of them ought to be voluntary." He'd heard "of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines."

He then articulated the broader philosophy of the anti-vaxxer movement, whose adherents aren't limited to the "Don't-Tread-on-Me" bunch, but include a sizable left-wing contingent in liberal enclaves in New York City and in California.

"The state doesn't own your children," he said. "Parents own the children and it is an issue of freedom."

This freedom concept — sometimes called “free-range” parenting -- is all the rage. It has been used to justify all kinds of questionable actions, from rejecting vaccines to dropping kids at the park to play unattended to leaving kids locked in cars while parents go shopping and out to dinner.

We expect truthing, birthering, anti-vaxxing and climate-change denial from the most conservative wing of the party but not from its presidential timber. Most Republicans realize that the positions that get candidates to the nomination are an albatross in the general election. That's why they are softening their views in advance of 2016.  That’s also why the reaction to Christie and Paul from headquarters was so swift. Maybe Paul was always planning on getting a booster shot this week but it’s doubtful he would have posted a photo of his ouchie on Twitter were he not climbing back off the limb he was sharing with free-range parents.

Christie and Paul didn’t see the vaccination controversy moving from the defense of individual rights at all costs -- especially in caucus states with lots of home-schoolers and the like -- to one of selfish, misinformed parents willing to endanger other people’s kids to indulge their own wacky ideas.  

We have become blasé about seeing politicians coddle their base and pander to the paranoid. But the spectacle of politicians willing to jeopardize public health for a few votes still came as a shock.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net