When President Joe Biden rolled out his plan requiring vaccinations on a mass scale, he sounded a bit like a gambler at a point of desperation. Biden’s presidency, and much of his legacy, hinges on defeating the prolonged pandemic. During a dismal summer of rising infections and deaths due to vaccine holdouts and the Delta variant, the pandemic seemed to have defeated him. Under the new rules, Biden hopes to pressure about 80 million more Americans to get their shots. It’s a political risk that opens him up to Republican attacks that he’s intruding on peoples’ freedoms, ahead of midterm elections that could easily strip the Democrats of their congressional majority. Biden gets this. He’s all in, win or lose.
“There are going to be people who don’t believe in the mandates and don’t believe they should be told what to do,” Senator Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told me, encapsulating an argument that his party plans to make ahead of the midterms. “We’re supposed to live in a country where you’re not being dictated everything.”
While Scott’s sentiment may resonate with hard-line Republicans, he appears to be misreading the larger public mood. As frustration with the pandemic mounts, Republican leaders look to be on the wrong side of an effort to expand vaccinations through a more forceful show of executive power. Under Biden’s plan, businesses with more than 100 employees will face fines unless they require their workers to be vaccinated or get weekly COVID-19 tests. Not only do most people favor vaccine mandates, but even a good chunk of Republican voters who’ve gotten their shots are inclined to blame the unvaccinated for the pandemic’s persistence.
Forcing people to get the shots wasn’t Biden’s first choice. Inside the White House, the preference was that Americans do this on their own. But with so many people still unvaccinated even though the shots are readily available, Biden was losing patience.
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“Months ago, because of the potential political blowback, no one wanted to resort to mandates,” a senior Biden-administration official told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely. “But then it became clear that we didn’t have any other choice, because, essentially, we had pulled out all the stops. We tried trusted messengers [to promote the vaccines]. We made it very convenient. It wasn’t enough.”
Biden’s bet, while risky, grows more solid by the day. Republicans are making a counterargument that they believe their base wants to hear, which would be fine if their base were sufficient to wrest control of Congress from the Democrats. Biden is trying to appeal to a wider audience. Two of the most prized voting blocs in an election—suburban and independent voters—favor Biden’s vaccine-mandate plan by solid margins. They don’t see the vaccine requirement as government overreach; for them, it’s a step toward reentering a world they remember from two years ago.
“Republicans could be making a real mistake on the long-term play on this issue, especially heading into the midterms,” Rob Stutzman, a longtime Republican strategist based in California, told me. “Voters are looking at this through a personal lens, not a political lens. If I’m vaccinated, I’m really annoyed that we’ve had a second surge that was made worse because of the unvaccinated. And I’m annoyed because that means I have to put a mask back on and I have kids in school who are now at risk.”
Twenty years ago, after hijacked planes brought down the World Trade Center and blew a hole in the Pentagon, George W. Bush signed the PATRIOT Act, making it easier for the federal government to surveil Americans in the name of national security. Enough Americans were traumatized by the events of 9/11 to make that sort of encroachment on civil liberties palatable, so long as it meant the government would safeguard them from another terrorist attack. Over the years, the trade-off proved a devil’s bargain, as government watchdogs have chronicled abuses of privacy that had nothing to do with foiling another attack on U.S. soil.
Biden’s vaccine mandates are more grounded in American tradition. George Washington ordered that his Continental Army be inoculated against smallpox while fighting the British during the Revolutionary War. Schools have long required vaccinations for diseases such as polio. “Nobody wants the government to tell you what to do,” says Frank Luntz, a longtime Republican pollster who has shared some of his research on COVID-19 with the White House. “But—and this is a big but—they’re even more afraid of the government allowing people who are standing beside them, traveling with them, working with them, and partying with them to give them COVID.’’
In the Reagan era, much of Republican identity was bound up in support for business and lower taxes. But the threshold question these days for Republicans looking to rise within the party is their fealty to Donald Trump. A strong argument can be made that Biden’s plan is helpful to businesses and the larger economy, and something that, in less polarized times, Republicans might have actually embraced. People are less likely to go to a movie theater if they fear that the couple eating popcorn in the seats next to them might be unvaccinated. They are less likely to attend a conference—injecting money into both the local and national economies through airfare, hotels, car services, and meals—if others in the crowd are unvaccinated.
Allison Berry is the health officer for two Washington State counties. One night this summer, a local bar held a trivia contest, and in the days that followed, 17 attendees tested positive for COVID-19. These people, in turn, infected more than 100 others. Two people eventually died from the outbreak traced back to that one night at the bar. Trying to stanch the spread, Berry issued an order earlier this month that bars and restaurants require proof of vaccination from customers looking to eat or drink indoors. For that, she was doxxed, with people posting what they thought was her home address online. She also received death threats. “I’m a young, single mom, so that was particularly threatening,” she told me.
But Berry also received notes of gratitude from local business owners who said their sales had increased because people felt safer coming in. Last month, Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced that most state workers needed to be vaccinated if they wanted to keep their job. Vaccine requirements, he told me, “are the alternative to shutting down your economy. People forget. What we did a year and a half ago is shut down our whole economy. That’s what we’re trying to avoid. This approach is so we don’t have to shut down restaurants.”
Recent polling suggests that Republicans willing to get behind mandates have political cover. Start with the fact that more than 75 percent of the adult population has gotten at least one vaccine dose. (An NBC poll from last month found that 55 percent of Republicans said they’d already been vaccinated.) Consider also that vaccinated Republicans are largely blaming unvaccinated Americans for rising COVID-19 cases, a position that squares with Biden’s. An Axios-Ipsos survey from August showed that 64 percent of vaccinated Republicans said those who hadn’t gotten shots bore most of the responsibility for the worsening crisis. Only 29 percent blamed Biden.
“If [Republican officials] want their base, I’ll take the other 70 percent of the country,” Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, a New York Democrat and the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told me. “They’re on the ass end of a very powerful issue.”
Most of the Republicans angling to inherit Trump’s base have come out hard against vaccine mandates. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate, has called Biden’s plan unconstitutional. He’s threatened to fine cities and counties that require their employees to get vaccinated.
Last week, I went to Capitol Hill to gauge whether Biden’s plan has any bipartisan support. I was curious about the relatively few Republican leaders who aren’t necessarily in thrall to Trump. As senators entered and left the chamber, I looked for more moderate Republicans who might want to discuss the issue on the merits. I asked Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial, in February, what she thought of Biden’s plan.
“I do not think having a federal mandate will encourage people to get the vaccines that I, for one, want them to get,” Collins said, standing in a Senate elevator. May I ride with you? I asked, hoping to talk more. “No.”
I brought up the issue to Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, a Republican who is retiring next year. “I strongly prefer the private sector to use incentives and am disappointed we haven’t put in place a public-service campaign for vaccines,” Portman told me. (Before I could ask for clarification, Portman said he had another interview to do and didn’t have time to talk.)
No one in the White House is eager to discuss the pandemic’s political implications. Their view is that that’s a mistake Republicans have made. “The first rule that Republicans should have learned when it comes to COVID is you don’t play politics with COVID,” Anita Dunn, a former senior Biden White House official, told me.
Fortunately for Biden, he’s presiding at a moment when good public policy and smart politics are converging. When it comes to COVID-19, the real political peril lies in doing too little, not too much. California Governor Gavin Newsom proved that by easily surviving a recall election that was partly a referendum on the state’s own aggressive COVID-19 measures.