As COVID-19's Delta variant spreads across the U.S., "many Republican governors have taken sweeping action to combat what they see as an even more urgent danger posed by the pandemic: the threat to personal freedom," The New York Times reports. "Most top Republicans, including every Republican governor, have been vaccinated and have encouraged others to do so. But most have also stopped short of supporting inoculation requirements and have opposed masking requirements," sometimes using the levels of government to block vaccine and mask mandates at private businesses and local schools.
"Freedom is good policy and good politics," Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told the Times. But this definition of freedom also carries individual and community risks — a swath of Southern states with low vaccination rates and few COVID-19 restrictions are seeing their highest hospitalization numbers and death tolls of the pandemic.
"In many ways, Republican leaders are simply following Republican voters," the Times notes, but "one Republican strategist privately lamented, only half-jokingly, that the party was going to kill off part of its own base with its vaccine hesitancy. Former President Donald J. Trump recently told donors at a New York Republican Party fundraiser that he hoped his supporters would get vaccinated because 'we need our people,' according to two attendees."
When Trump publicly urged his supporters to get vaccinated at an Alabama rally, some of the crowd booed and Trump took a step back. "That's okay," he said. "You got your freedoms, but I happened to take the vaccine." Trump's political operation, which "has clearly assessed where his base stands," is sending out marketing texts blaring "FREEDOM PASSPORTS > VACCINE PASSPORTS," the Times notes.
Defining "freedom" as enforced opposition to masks and vaccines is not very popular outside the GOP base, and it isn't very traditionally conservative, Republican pollsters and even some leaders say. "Liberty has never meant the freedom to threaten the health" of others, GOP pollster Whit Ayres told the Times. "That is a perversion of the definition of liberty and freedom."