Republicans have declared war on President Joe Biden’s plan to mandate vaccinations against the coronavirus. They say Biden’s plan—which covers federal workers, health care workers, government contractors, and companies that employ 100 or more people—violates individual rights and exceeds the president’s constitutional authority. It’s a serious argument, but it isn’t being seriously presented. Instead, Biden’s opponents are arguing both sides of every question. They’re doing anything they can to obstruct a solution as the virus kills thousands of people each week.
The simplest argument against the mandate is that no one should be fired for refusing an injection. “You shouldn’t have to make the choice of keeping your job or getting a jab in the arm,” says Pete Ricketts, the Republican governor of Nebraska. But Biden’s plan offers another option—instead of getting a COVID shot, you can “show a negative test at least once a week”—and Republicans say that’s still too intrusive. Such “rigorous testing procedures” are “an infringement of every citizen’s fundamental rights,” says Sen. Josh Hawley. Other Republicans agree. They won’t accept mandatory injection, and they won’t accept reasonable alternatives.
The GOP’s next objection is that employers, not government, should decide whether to require vaccination as a workplace policy. But when employers choose that policy, Republicans attack them. Rep. Andy Biggs, the chair of the House Freedom Caucus, complains about “the private sector” imposing vaccine rules. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who calls Biden’s plan an “assault on private businesses,” has issued two executive orders barring vaccine mandates by any private entity that receives public funds. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, another self-styled libertarian, attacks Biden’s mandate while bragging about a new Florida law that prohibits businesses from requiring proof of vaccination. Sen. Ted Cruz says “the federal government has no authority to force businesses” to require vaccination, but he has filed federal legislation to bar companies from imposing such mandates. In fact, Cruz complains that Biden’s mandate is a fig leaf for Fortune 500 companies that want to vaccinate their workers.
Sometimes Republicans argue that anyone who’s afraid of COVID can get adequate protection through vaccination, so there’s no need to force vaccination on anyone else. “If the vaccine protects, why do the vaccinated need protecting?” asks Rep. Jim Jordan. But at other times, Republicans challenge the efficacy of vaccines. “I have friends who have actually picked up the virus after being vaccinated,” says Rep. Claudia Tenney. She concedes that the vaccine won’t prevent you from getting infected, yet she insists that unvaccinated people are entitled “to make their own decision,” as though that decision affects nobody else. Tenney, DeSantis, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and many other Republicans specifically defend unvaccinated hospital and nursing home workers, who are ideally positioned to infect vulnerable people.
One of the best arguments against Biden’s plan is that it’s unfair to people who, through prior infection, have developed natural immunity to the virus. McCarthy estimates that 40 million Americans are in this category. But by his own calculation, that leaves another 50 million who have been neither vaccinated nor infected. Furthermore, studies show that vaccination boosts immunity even in people who were previously infected. But the central problem with accepting natural immunity as an alternative to vaccination is that the immunity would have to be verified. That would require an antibody test or access to the employee’s medical records, both of which Republicans oppose. At a press conference in Florida on Tuesday, DeSantis and other critics of Biden’s plan accused the president of ignoring natural immunity, yet they vowed to tighten COVID privacy rules because “your medical health records are your business, not the government’s.”
Another common refrain among Republicans is that if unvaccinated people lose their jobs, their children will suffer. J.D. Vance, the Trumpist author who’s running for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, says vaccine refusers won’t be able to feed their families. But McCarthy, Abbott, and other Republicans say just the opposite: that mandates will hurt employers because jobs are so abundant that vaccine refusers will just quit and easily find other work. At the press conference in Florida, DeSantis accused Biden of threatening people’s livelihoods, but other speakers said the mandate would fail because workers who opposed vaccination already had other job offers.
Despite their outcry over mandatory vaccinations for COVID, Republicans express no objections to vaccine mandates for other diseases, such as polio, measles, and hepatitis. When they’re asked why, they suggest that COVID isn’t as worrisome. It’s “very different from polio, [which] has very devastating effects,” says Ricketts. This is spectacularly false, and Republicans know it. At the DeSantis press conference, Rep. Kat Cammack—who has belittled COVID and downplayed the importance of vaccination—insisted that as a matter of loyalty, unvaccinated first responders should be allowed to keep their jobs, since they had bravely risked their lives by coming to the aid of numerous people infected with the virus. But if the virus posed such a risk to these heroes, why wouldn’t it pose the same risk to anyone whom they, as carriers, later encountered? And for that reason, shouldn’t they be vaccinated?
Politicians on the right also argue that COVID vaccines, unlike vaccines for other diseases, should remain voluntary because they’re widely distrusted. But this argument is circular, because the same politicians are inciting that distrust. Last week, in a statement against Biden’s mandate, Sen. Ron Johnson said the president had failed to “answer basic questions regarding [COVID] vaccine safety.” On Monday, Rep. Ronny Jackson told Fox News viewers that the vaccines’ long-term effects were unknown and that Jackson had agreed to get a COVID shot only under duress. On Tuesday, the first speaker at DeSantis’ anti-mandate press conference asserted, falsely, that “the vaccine changes your RNA.” DeSantis, standing next to him, said nothing.
Republicans have been particularly cynical in their complaints about Biden’s failure to control the pandemic. They say he hasn’t done enough, yet they refuse to let him do more. Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, says the president “failed to shut down the virus” because he “failed to get people vaccinated.” At the same time, she says the RNC will sue to block the vaccine mandate. Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona vows to “pursue every legal and administrative option” against the mandate, even as he blames Biden for a “plummeting rate of vaccinations.” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee grouse that if Biden were serious about the mandate, he would have imposed it three months ago and would have extended it to smaller companies. They also argue that the mandate shouldn’t exist.
Some of these objections are more sensible than others. But all of them are insincere. You can’t reject mandates while complaining that voluntary vaccination has produced unacceptable results. You can’t argue that vaccination policies must be left to employers unless politicians disagree. You can’t sow distrust of vaccines and then plead that the vaccines should be optional because people don’t trust them. A party that plays such games isn’t a party of liberty, free enterprise, or public safety. It’s just a party of opposition.