How did anti-vaccination skepticism become the default, "safe" answer for likely Republican presidential candidates?
I think it's because these candidates — most prominently Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), — draw a link to the way their party deals with climate change. Having little reason to think about vaccinations in political terms before, they’re looking to last cycle's cyclone of denialism for help with the playbook. They shouldn't. The two issues are very, very different.
Candidates who say that humans aren't responsible for global climate change and therefore should not be held responsible for its consequences are catering to a faction who funds their campaigns. Most of these candidates do, in fact, know better.
Candidates who say that the science on vaccination must be balanced with the choices that families make about health care are reflecting (or betraying?) an assumption that their voting base extends their genuinely-held mistrust of the government to anti-vaccination campaigns. That voting base does not, in fact, oppose vaccinations. Most of these candidates don't know better.
While climate change denialism is widespread in America, and among Republicans in particular, vaccination skepticism is a small (but growing) movement that tracks across all political lines.
The form of the argument is the same. Don't let government tell us what to do; don't let scientists dictate policy. But the root of the argument is different, and the politics are very, very different.
The anti-vaxxers haven't spent billions to influence elections. The skin they have in the game is literally their own. They sincerely believe in what they're saying, and no amount of science, of special pleading, or of mainstream media reproach is going to get them to change their minds. Indeed, not even the outbreak of measles itself has given the anti-vax movement any pause.
The anti-vax movement does not align itself with partisan political divisions, although more Republicans than Democrats tend to be skeptical of government-mandated vaccinations. Most people regardless of their party or political geography think that kids should get all their vaccinations. Slightly fewer, owing to the way that the question is asked, believe that government should set these standards and enforce them. But still: a big majority.
Climate change, by contrast, has become a party flagpole issue, tied closely to perceptions of government.
Let's look at Chris Christie as an illustrative example. First, I think Christie's stronger instincts bend towards the light of science. When he was asked the question in London, he seems to have quickly weighed them against his own projection of what his base would want to hear.
After all, any time you hear any question that ties the health of children to the requirements of the state or federal government, you’re going to think through the consequences of what it means to have the feds enforce the rule. Here's what Christie said. First, he noted that he had vaccinated his own children. And then: "Parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that's the balance that the government has to decide." The second part of his answer is largely a throwaway line designed to placate a sentiment that does not exist. Christie, according to the media, later clarified, with a spokesman saying that he only meant to suggest that since different states had different policies on which vaccines are required, there shouldn’t necessarily be a top-down federal government approach.
"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," said Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts. "At the same time different states require different degrees of vaccination, which is why he was calling for balance in which ones government should mandates." [CNN]
Balance still is not a very good word for what Christie is saying. Indeed, California has looser vaccination laws than Mississippi. But outbreaks don’t begin in Mississippi like they do in California. I wager that Christie’s political consultants, having seen how the issue played out publicly in New Jersey, think that they can satisfy all sides by turning to federalism, but the facts here tend to suggest that a one-size-fits-all policy either mutually agreed upon by all states or simply mandated by the federal government would be the most practical way of ensuring that "kids should be vaccinated."
Venturing again into that part of my brain that tries to figure out what political strategists are thinking, I think the fear here is that vaccination will become more of a political fireball than it is now. That's simply because almost any question about government and health care that rises to the level of the public’s attention becomes subject to the strongly partisan terms of politics today. And Democrats want to claim the terrain that favors required inoculations — it’s one of the few, personally intrusive government mandates that’s actually popular.