New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Monday said the government needs to strike a "balance" between public health and parental choice in making decisions about vaccinating kids, even as an outbreak of measles is spreading among unvaccinated people in the United States. "We vaccinate ours [kids], and so, you know that's the best expression I can give you of my opinion," Christie said when asked if he would urge Americans to vaccinate their children. "You know it's much more important what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official. And that's what we do. But I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that's the balance that the government has to decide."
During her ill-fated presidential campaign four years ago, then-Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) denounced the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, arguing that it can lead to mental retardation. Bachmann's claim had no foundation in reality, and the remarks sparked a larger discussion of her habit of saying ridiculous things. The right-wing lawmaker's campaign never recovered.
I mention this to provide some necessary context: those who play politics with vaccinations have a habit of causing trouble for themselves. As Kasie Hunt reports this morning, the new example involves New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R).
Maybe there's something about London that causes American Republicans to exercise poor judgment. Last month, it was Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) causing trouble for himself on the other side of the pond; this month, apparently, it's Christie. [Update: let's also not forget Mitt Romney's misadventures in London.]
There are some important angles to this, but perhaps the most striking is the difference between the New Jersey governor's handling of vaccinations as compared to, say, Ebola. Remember Kaci Hickox?
It was just four months ago that Christie, responding to a perceived public health threat, decided to detain a nurse in a tent with no heat or running water, as part of a mandatory, 21-day quarantine policy he'd cooked up. Hickox, who had helped treat Ebola patients in West Africa, was asymptomatic, but at least at first, the Garden State governor said his policy was nevertheless the right call.
Sure, Hickox's freedoms matter and personal choices matter, Christie said, but they were simply less important than a perceived public health threat. The governor said he had a responsibility to look out for everyone's interests, and if that meant inconveniencing someone, well, too bad. Christie's line, in effect, was simple: we can't take chances with public health.
Four months later, however, when dealing with ailments that are may be more contagious than Ebola, Christie seems to have a very different perspective. Now, all of a sudden, the governor hopes there's a "balance" when it comes to vaccinations.
A "balance" between what and what? Christie didn't say, exactly.
As Kasie Hunt's report added, the governor's spokesperson later clarified Christie's argument: "To be clear: The Governor believes vaccines are an important public health protection and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated. At the same time different states require different degrees of vaccination, which is why he was calling for balance in which ones government should mandate."
Asked about the potential risks of not vaccinating children, Christie told the media, "I didn't say I'm leaving people the option. What I'm saying is that you have to have that balance in considering parental concerns because no parent cares about anything more than they care about protecting their own child's health and so we have to have that conversation, but that has to move and shift in my view from disease type. Not every vaccine is created equal and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others. So that's what I mean by that so that I'm not misunderstood."
Christie's background on the issue only makes this appear more serious. In 2009, after the governor's Democratic predecessor approved vaccine mandates, the Republican candidate went out of his way to appease anti-vaccination activists. "I have met with families affected by autism from across the state and have been struck by their incredible grace and courage," Christie said at the time. "Many of these families have expressed their concern over New Jersey's highest-in-the nation vaccine mandates. I stand with them now, and will stand with them as their governor in their fight for greater parental involvement in vaccination decisions that affect their children."
Benjy Sarlin added this morning that an anti-vaccination activist who helped create the NJ Vaccination Choice Coalition, says she's "spent a lot of time with Governor Christie working on this," adding, "He's been absolutely constant on this issue since I first met with him in 2008."
What we're left with is a painfully ridiculous realization: it seems vaccines will be a campaign issue in the 2016 election.
Postscript: President Obama sat down with NBC's Savannah Guthrie and he took a far more sensible approach. "I understand that there are families that in some cases are concerned about the effect of vaccinations. The science is, you know, pretty indisputable," the president said. "We've looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren't reasons to not.... You should get your kids vaccinated. It's good for them, but we should be able to get back to the point where measles effectively is not existing in this country."