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Too many Republican officials take aim at vaccines, not mandates

The Republican Party's "pro-vaccine, anti-mandate" line is wrong. The GOP's "anti-vaccine" line is worse.

About a month ago, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered floor remarks that summarized what we often hear from Republicans about Covid-19 vaccines. The Kentucky senator offered his full support for the vaccines, touted their efficacy and safety, and shared his own experiences as a survivor of childhood polio.

He then added the standard GOP caveat. "But here's the thing," McConnell added, "the United States of America is a free country."

To be sure, there's no shortage of Republican officials who have actively tried to undermine public confidence in the vaccines themselves. But broadly speaking, the party apparatus has tried to walk a fine line for much of the last year: The GOP isn't against vaccines, they say, the party is only against vaccine requirements.

It's long been a flawed argument for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that vaccine requirements have been common in the United States for generations, and the party didn't seem to care until Covid-19 started killing hundreds of thousands of Americans.

But complicating matters is the fact that the argument is gradually being pushed aside, replaced with more overt Republican opposition to vaccines themselves. Yahoo News reported over the holiday weekend:

Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee questioned the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccination booster shots on Twitter on Thursday as the Omicron variant continues to spread across the US. "If the booster shots work, why don't they work?" tweeted the official account of the 19 Republican members of the committee, whose ranking member is Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio.

The tweet was eventually removed, but not before Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee published a follow-up tweet, pointing to rising Covid infections amidst the omicron surge — as if this were proof that somehow bolstered their other bogus claim.

To the extent that reality still has any meaning, rising infection rates do not mean that booster shots are ineffective. In fact, the committee had it backwards: If more Americans had received boosters, the threat posed by increased infections would be far less severe.

But stepping back, what made the tweets so striking was their existence: It's problematic enough to see random GOP officials peddle nonsense about vaccines, but this was an instance in which 19 Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee collectively issued a statement that falsely told the public that booster shots don't work.

The "pro-vaccine, anti-mandate" line is wrong. The "anti-vaccine" line is worse.

Highlighting some related examples, New York magazine's Jon Chait added in a column last week, "[T]he right is revealing once again that the abstract principle that is supposedly the bedrock of its position is not actually its main concern. The right's anger with vaccine mandates wasn't about the mandates. It was about the vaccines."

Rank-and-file Republicans have clearly gotten the message. Donald Trump himself twice faced booing from his own followers in recent months, and it wasn't because he endorsed mandates. In fact, the former president explicitly did the opposite.

It was because Trump told his ostensible allies to protect themselves during the pandemic with vaccines that were developed during his presidency. In GOP politics, that's increasingly the wrong thing to say.