WASHINGTON ― Just months after praising COVID-19 vaccines as the product of the former president’s “Operation Warp Speed” and American ingenuity, Republicans have embraced a vocal anti-vaccine minority whose macabre preference for illness and death coincidentally is hurting the economy and the current Democratic president’s approval numbers.
But Republicans disproportionately account for those who have not been vaccinated ― even more so among those who say they absolutely will not get the vaccine. Republican elected officials in increasing numbers have been modifying their views to conform.
“The number one factor if you want to rise in the Republican Party today is to be OK with people dying,” said Stuart Stevens, a Republican consultant who helped George W. Bush win the White House twice and then was a top aide in Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign.
He said GOP officials know that their words are leading to many constituents’ needless deaths but that they also believe surging COVID cases will slow the economic rebound and hurt Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections.
“I don’t think this is any different from when Mitch McConnell said after Barack Obama was elected that his number one goal was to make sure Barack Obama was a one-term president,” Stevens said, referring to the Senate Republican leader’s 2010 vow.
Biden was visibly frustrated last week as he spoke to the nation about his latest steps to increase the vaccination rate in the face of a surge of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients clogging hospitals. He criticized Republican governors for actively hurting efforts to control the disease, which, after receding in the spring as vaccination rates increased, began surging with the new, more communicable delta strain. “If these governors won’t help us beat the pandemic, I’ll use my power as president to get them out of the way.”
One White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration understands that a percentage of Americans will not be receptive to a message from Biden but may be open to persuasion by others, such as employers who require either full vaccination or frequent coronavirus tests.
The official cited Tyson Foods, which saw its percentage of vaccinated employees go from 45% to 72% in a single month following its August announcement that the company would require vaccinations. United Airlines similarly saw its numbers go from 59% to 79% after its announcement.
A Goldman Sachs analysis Monday predicted that Biden’s efforts will help the economic recovery. “The medium-run net employment impact is likely positive since higher full vaccination rates will reduce virus spread, which should boost labor demand in high-contact services and labor force participation among some of the 3 million people who currently aren’t working due to virus-spread concerns.”
Republican officials have argued that governments have no right to require Americans to get a vaccine as a condition of employment ― even though public and private schools all over the country have required a long list of vaccines for decades, and even though many of those same officials were praising former President Donald Trump’s administration for pushing so hard for a vaccine.
On Jan. 9, just three days after Trump’s last-ditch effort to overthrow American democracy failed in the deadly Capitol insurrection, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and two other GOP governors took part in a vaccine summit at the White House to highlight the success of the administration’s “Operation Warp Speed” to develop COVID-19 vaccines in less than a year.
Now DeSantis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, as well as Trump himself, are vocal opponents of Biden’s vaccine mandates and at times are even giving voice to arguments being spread by vaccine opponents.
Trump, in a recent interview, claimed he would not get a booster shot once it is available, suggesting it was a ploy by pharmaceutical companies to make more money. He has also been repeatedly attacking the vaccine mandate in fundraising emails. “He just mandated the Covid vaccine for 80 MILLION Americans. The last time I checked, we live in a FREE Country,” read one sent out Friday. “First, they wanted to mandate MASKS, and now they’re mandating VACCINES - can you believe it?”
And DeSantis, who aggressively pushed Florida’s elderly population to get vaccinated late last year and early this year, in recent months has instead been emphasizing monoclonal antibodies for those who contract the disease. At one such event Monday, DeSantis stood beside a Gainesville utility employee as he falsely claimed from behind a lectern bearing Florida’s official seal that the vaccines alter your RNA and that people should not get them.
DeSantis, who already has been trying to punish schools that require students to wear masks, is now going after Florida municipalities that impose a vaccine mandate with $5,000-per-incident fines. He said Tuesday that he did not hear what the city worker was saying, that he knows the vaccines effectively prevent serious illness and that he hopes people choose to get vaccinated.
Stevens was unimpressed. “Ron DeSantis is killing people, and he thinks it helps him in the Republican primary,” he said.
DeSantis’s office did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment Tuesday.
Joe Walsh, a former GOP congressman and a longtime talk-radio host, said the majority of vaccine opponents he speaks to base their views on a variety of conspiracy theories ― from a belief the vaccine would magnetize their bodies to fears it would introduce a microchip ― but that 5% to 10% refuse to get the vaccine specifically because it is Biden pushing the effort.
Erick Erickson, a conservative talk-radio host who nevertheless encourages his audience to get vaccinated, said he also hears all the conspiracy theories. “I keep having to walk people through individually on why they should. The amount of bullshit people are willing to believe is incredible.”
Stevens said Republican leaders have a responsibility to take on the absurd claims from their own supporters, not go along with them for political gain. “What you have here is people who are not evil but who are ambitious and weak, and the result is evil. This is why the Republican Party has to be burned to the ground. It’s a threat to the country.”