Democrats question GOP shift on vaccines

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Democrats are confounded by what they see as the GOP’s shifting rhetoric on vaccines, which in their view has changed as the delta variant has swept through unvaccinated populations in disproportionately Republican areas. 

More Republicans and conservatives this week — from House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.) to leading personalities on Fox News — have come out with calls for people to get vaccinated as cases and hospitalizations have risen. 

“Delta COVID is really hitting these ruby red districts,” said Democratic strategist Max Burns. “I think the physical reality of watching loved ones die from this pandemic cuts right through any COVID-minimizing messaging coming out of the right-wing media network.”

The irritation from many Democrats is that there was not a more forceful and unified vaccination push on the right earlier into the pandemic from former President Trump down to his lieutenants and elected allies. 

Some Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), have consistently urged people to get vaccinated, but other GOP voices have stomped on that message with cries of government overreach and questions about whether young and healthy people in particular should get a shot.

Democrats now largely see the GOP as changing its tone as polls suggest its voters are being hit the hardest. Indeed, many believe Republicans are attempting to inoculate themselves from that kind of criticism ahead of the 2022 midterms. 

The “sudden pleading for people to get vaccinated,” said Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, “stems from the fact that they’re looking at their constituents die.”

“Their voice print, what they’ve been saying up until this point, is all over that,” Steele said. 

Yet even though there’s a strong desire to call Republicans out, some Democrats acknowledge they have to handle the situation delicately — both because they want more skeptical people to get vaccinated and because of potential political dangers in next year’s elections. 

“It’s definitely an issue where I think the GOP sees voters starting to lose trust in its assessment of COVID, so they’re rapidly turning the ship,” said Burns. “And honestly, I’m hesitant to dunk on them because if it gets people vaccinated, thank God they finally got the message.”

Why there’s been a notable shift in the GOP this week has been a point of widespread speculation.

A former Obama White House policy official, who asked to speak candidly without attribution, said it’s possible Republicans are worried the economic impacts from unvaccinated individuals could also hit GOP states harder than other areas. Many of the states with the largest COVID-19 spikes over the last month backed Trump for president during the 2020 election.

But this Democrat said his party has to be careful about unleashing criticism. 

“There will be Democrats who overplay that hand and probably unconstructively,” the source said. “I think the Biden administration recognizes that they’re judged by aggregate outcome. If that serves the greater health care purpose, it will also serve the greater economic and political purpose for them.”

“They will be making a mistake if they do some sort of victory dance,” the former administration official added. 

The White House has continued to promote its own pro-vaccination strategy even as the pace of vaccinations has fallen. President Biden had hoped that 70 percent of the country’s adults would have at least one vaccine shot by July 4, a mark that was narrowly missed.

Sixty-nine percent of the population 18 years old and over has now had one vaccine shot, according to a database kept by The New York Times. But the rate is as low as 48.4 percent in Mississippi, 51.3 percent in Wyoming and 54.7 percent in West Virginia.

During a cable news town hall in Ohio this week, Biden called that coronavirus “a pandemic for those who haven’t gotten the vaccination.”

A day after his appearance in Cincinnati, the administration announced that it will also increase detection efforts by adding more funding for testing facilities, an apparent move to help curb the virus’s spread for those who have not yet been vaccinated or have declined outright.

“If people are not going to be vaccinated, the least we can do is get them tested to determine if they are infected to either get them into care or to keep them quarantined so they don’t infect other people,” said Anthony Fauci in an interview with The Hill. 

Fauci, the nation’s foremost immunologist, stressed that vaccines are “the most effective tool” to deter COVID-19.

Many Democrats believe Biden will be rewarded politically for his handling of the pandemic, and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) plans to highlight how some Republicans have pushed anti-vaccine positions.

“While we’re glad to see Republican officials and talking heads finally advocate for vaccines, it is undeniable that their lies contributed to vaccine hesitancy,” said DNC spokesperson Adonna Biel. 

Biel criticized individual GOP lawmakers, including Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) as “anti-vaxxers” who “spread dangerous misinformation without any sort of pushback.” Both have been vocally skeptical of vaccines.

The Republican Party has not yet settled on a clear plan for constituent outreach on the issue. During a press conference with House Republicans, things got heated and more muddled when members attempted to heap blame on Democrats for the origins of the virus rather than stick to a previously stated agenda about messaging. 

Scalise announced earlier in the week that he got the first of two Pfizer shots and gave his blessing for unvaccinated people to follow his lead. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), meanwhile, dismissed a reporter’s question about some in his party adopting a new posture. “I don’t think we shifted in our tone,” McCarthy said. 

The failure to form a cohesive framework was on display when one Republican officeholder, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, condemned people who have chosen not to protect themselves, saying that “it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks” to reporters during a briefing.

COVID-19 cases in Ivey’s native Alabama have been on the uptick.

The delta-related rises come as a study by the Yale School of Public Health found that as of June, nearly 280,000 people have had their lives saved as a result of vaccines in the country.

“The pivot has to do with what their private polling is telling them,” Steele said, using the term “flip-flop” to describe the actions of some within his own party. 

“That’s the ugly sweet spot. That’s where that gnarly truth is hidden, in the private polling that shows them that their messaging is killing people,” he said. “People are starting to look differently at those messengers.”

Tags Anthony Fauci Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden Kay Ivey Kevin McCarthy Marjorie Taylor Greene Mitch McConnell Ron Johnson Steve Scalise

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