Political Inoculation

How Rick Perry can defuse the controversy over the HPV vaccine.

Gov. Rick Perry at the Sept. 12 debate

“It’s kind of bullshit that Rick Perry is backing off of the HPV thing,” says Debra Medina.

The “HPV thing” is Perry’s executive order, as governor of Texas in 2007, to mandate an anti-cervical-cancer vaccine named Gardasil for girls between 10 and 12. The issue arose in the presidential debate on Monday after Wolf Blitzer brought it up and two of Perry’s rivals pounced. Rick Santorum accused Perry of “having little girls inoculated at the force and compulsion of the government.” Michele Bachmann, with her usual flair, added that “to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong.” When the debate was over, Ron Paul took a swing, too.

Perry tried something new: unrepentant humility. “If I had it to do over again, I would have done it differently,” he said. “I would have gone to the legislature, worked with them. But what was driving me was, obviously, making a difference about young people’s lives.”

All of this was old news to Medina. In 2010, she challenged Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Republican primary for governor. She’d never won office before, but it was a good year to be a first-time citizen politician waving the Gadsden flag: She surged so high, so fast, that Perry was almost forced into a runoff. One of the issues she pounded him was Gardasil. Hutchison joined in. Perry beat them, but he was on safer turf than he is now.

“What’s interesting about this whole drama,” she says, back at work at her medical billing company, “is that even through the gubernatorial campaign, he maintained it was the right decision and he’d do it again. Now, all of a sudden, he becomes a presidential candidate, and says once the legislature passed bill contradicting him, he heeded their advice.” She laughs ruefully. “He didn’t veto the bill, but he continued to maintain publicly that the executive order was the right thing to do, he wanted to protect these girls.”

How did this become a problem for Perry? Not too long ago, the only people complaining loudly about this were the sort of people who thought he was building a superhighway to Mexico, or reupping his membership in the Bilderberg Group. Perry welcomed their outrage as just another example of what happens to strong leaders like Rick Perry.

“We instigated, with HPV, a national debate, and I think appropriately,” Perry told Evan Smith in a 2007 interview. “As a matter of fact, the more I know about this disease, the more I know that we are absolutely, unequivocally correct. I don’t think anyone had any idea that it was as widespread or as costly. I tell my Republican friends, ‘If you want to focus on the good old fiscal side of it, we spend $350 million per biennium on this disease with cancer treatments and hysterectomies and the cost to the state.’ “

The 2007 interview gives us a Perry who’s punchy, annoyed, not sure why this is such a controversy. The people who doubt his strategy are “Monday morning quarterbacking.” He’s basically saying the same thing now, betting that he can get past this issue by admitting a tiny misjudgment, then putting sandbags up and waiting for the fury to burn itself out.

It’s a pretty good bet. It helps when Bachmann is leading the opposition. Within an hour of the debate, she told Fox News about a mysterious woman who said that Gardisil had mentally disabled her child. On Tuesday Rush Limbaugh was speculating that Bachmann had “jumped the shark.” The FDA has judged Gardasil to be 100 percent effective. According to the CDC, there have been 35 million doses of the vaccine, with 0.05 percent of them causing any side effects. Pro-vaccine groups, who have spent quite enough time on Jenny McCarthy, have taken after Bachmann with the smiles and vigor of a shortstop chasing a fly ball.

“Congresswoman Bachmann telling that story showed reckless disregard for science and the health of children in her stating that vaccines can cause mental retardation and other developmental issues,” says Evan Siegfried, a spokesman for the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership. “By joining the ranks of ‘vaccination-truthers,’ she is giving a widely discredited ‘theory’ a voice and putting the health and safety of children at risk.”

But “anti-vaxxer” conspiracy wasn’t actually at the root of the HPV struggle. Perry’s original problem was that social conservatives vehemently opposed a vaccination for pre-pubescent girls. Why? They viewed it as an usurption of the parents’ rightful role in making medical decisions and bright-red matador flag that girls could go ahead and have pre-marital sex with no worries about the human papillomavirus to kill the mood.

There’s good news for Perry here: So far, he’s smoothed over the social-conservative panic. Before launching his campaign he met with influential movement leaders, answering their questions with the same two-step he gave in Tampa: I was mostly right, but I shouldn’t have made the vaccine mandatory. That’s significantly softer than his original answer to questions like this.

Perry still faces at least one more HPV problem, though. It’s the Republican problem of the moment, thanks to Sarah Palin. It’s “crony capitalism.” Bachmann’s most coherent attack on Gardasil came when she accused Perry of forcing the program through because his former chief of staff, Mark Toomey, lobbied for Gardisil’s maker, Merck. Perry said he’d only gotten $5,000 from Merck; that lowballs the actual figure by about $25,000.

Pushing through a massive vaccination program in order to benefit his friend? Is Perry some kind of cackling villain in a direct-to-video Rutger Hauer movie? Well, no, but the crony argument helped sink the plan in 2007, causing a mess big enough that Merck simply stopped lobbying for mandatory vaccinations. (Lucky for Merck, Palin’s Alaska got its plan in under the wire.) Perry’s flub inspired reporters to pry the coffin nails off of the HPV story and prove that his financial ties to the drug company ran deeper than he admitted. So there may be is a skeptical conservative voter who has a question he didn’t have on Monday: Will this guy sign legislation or executive orders with one eye on what people have donated to his campaign?

That’s how this could hurt Perry. If the shiny Bachmann bauble gets all the attention, he’s home free again—just like he was when he beat Debra Medina.