Senator Rand Paul and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie must feel like they’ve been thrown under the bus. They were just doing what every red-blooded Republican would have done.
In saying parents should have the right to choose whether their kids are vaccinated for measles and other preventable illnesses, as Christie did, and in saying state-mandated immunizations have been categorically linked to mental illness, as Paul did, the (unofficial) presidential hopefuls were merely following the GOP playbook. They were teaching the controversy.
Teaching the what? It’s easy. They were taking something politically neutral, like vaccinations to stop communicable diseases, and fabricating another side. Then they took the “side” of the “debate” that most reflects the values of voters they are courting.
Another thing they were doing that every Republican does, especially if they are gunning for the White House, was finding the freedom angle to something that’s long been settled politically. That’s easy too. Take any kind of law or policy that impacts personal behavior and suggest, or even claim outright, that such requirements could infringe on individual liberty.
In Christie’s case, he was suggesting parents are oppressed by state laws requiring children to be vaccinated. They need freedom from the regulatory state. In Paul’s case, he was tapping into the vast, murky and truth-defying realm of conspiracy theory. If the government wants you to do something, there must be a host of conspiratorial forces behind it. “The state doesn’t own your children,” Paul said. Conclusion: Freedom equals the absence of government.
Then suddenly, out of the blue, Paul and Christie find themselves on the outside looking in. On Tuesday, Republican House Speaker John Boehner said every child should be vaccinated. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who once contracted polio, said he was grateful for vaccinations. And Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly said, with no small amount of passion, that vaccinations should be federally mandated: “Some things do require Big Brother.”
These same strategies work so very well when the subject of conversation is climate change, gun violence or food stamps. Now Paul and Christie have lost even Fox News.
Apologists will say both went too far in their hunger for a voter base and that Republican leadership had to step in and bring them back in line. Right now that’s especially important to party bosses, as they are trying to convince anyone listening that they can govern.
The most likely answer is simpler.
Unlike an environmental cataclysm, out-of-control firearm distribution and bureaucratized transfer payments, contagious diseases aren’t abstract. More importantly, they are concrete to a majority of white affluent senior-citizen suburbanites who make up the GOP’s base of power.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi accused Paul and Christie of being anti-science and anti-governance. That’s totally true and totally irrelevant. Science and governance never won the presidency for any Republican. Ever. What does matter, however, is what propertied and privileged Republicans say, and what they said was “what the hell are you doing?”
Such rare disunity presents an opportunity for Democrats to cut into the GOP’s base. Nancy Pelosi already took the first step by appealing to Republicans who are educated, informed and approving of good governance, especially when it comes to issues of public health.
This opportunity is ideological as much as it is tactical. It’s also historical.
Freedom from big government made a kind of sense 35 years ago when taxation was high, inflation was high and the marketplace was highly regulated. So-called Reaganomics was once “voodoo economics,” said George H.W. Bush. Now it’s orthodoxy. Movement conservatism won.
But times change.
We are now at another impasse in which orthodox methods is making matters worse. Yet conservatives still believe the solution is attacking big government. Consider this from North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, who seriously suggested a way to achieve greater economic growth is to get rid of laws requiring food-service employees to wash their hands after using the restroom.
“I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says we don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom,” Tillis said with earnest. “The market will take care of that.”
Some ideologies are historically contingent. They once mattered for reasons peculiar to their time and place. But it’s not enough for national Democrats to permit movement conservatism to rot on the vine. They have to replace it with a credible and productive alternative.
Perhaps more importantly, they have to replace the old meaning of freedom with a new one.
With the worst outbreak of measles in the last 15 years, a disease once thought to have been eradicated by vaccines, it’s hard to imagine a better time to claim a meaning.
Freedom is good governance.