Political news took an 18th century turn this week when President Obama forced Republicans to oppose mandatory vaccinations by saying that everyone should vaccinate their kids. In short order, Chris Christie was calling for parental choice and balance in vaccine requirement, and Rand Paul was claiming that vaccines might cripple your brain, or not, but he's getting his shots anyway, and John Boehner was declaring his own love of vaccines, but not a need for new laws to ensure everyone gets them. In a particularly Republican touch, even the ones who defended vaccines found a way to bash immigrants, instead.
Lost amid the gleeful and appropriate Republican-bashing and inaccurate 2008 Obama-bashing is the fact that while Democrats have happily claimed the high ground that Republicans have ceded them, they haven't really earned it. Yes, they have cleared the low bar of not questioning the need for everyone to act responsibly to get their kids vaccinated, but they haven't actually called for any legislative action to accomplish that.
It's not like they haven't been asked. Savannah Guthrie specifically asked the president, during her Super Bowl interview, if there "should be a requirement" for parents to get their kids vaccinated, and he didn't actually answer that question.
Part of the problem is a general level of ignorance by the media on the subject of vaccines, as exemplified by Guthrie's apparent unawareness that every state requires children to be vaccinated, or at the other end, by ABC News' Jim Avila insisting that there are federal laws requiring childhood vaccine, which he did at a White House briefing last Friday. Listen to how White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest responds:
Avila: And as I understand the regulations now are, is that the federal rules are you have to get a vaccine to go to school, but if you have -- but there are exemptions, and the exemptions are for religious reasons and also if you have a special concern. Does that law need to be addressed? Does that mean we have to eliminate these special concerns, which are not based on science?
Earnest: I haven't heard any discussion about revising those rules, but this administration and our public health professionals rely on the best science available to give Americans the information that they need so that they can take the steps that are necessary to protect themselves and their families. And that’s what we believe is the most important rule for the government in this case.
There actually aren't federal laws on this, only a patchwork of state laws with varying degrees of loopholery. Last week, this wasn't the hot story it is now, so Earnest could be forgiven for not having a big policy shift to roll out off the top of his head, but at Tuesday's briefing, he was asked again, several times, and this time, he had been in discussions with the president on the subject. CBS News' Major Garrett did the most effective job of buttoning the administration's position down. Earnest employs two quality dodges here, pending litigation and states' rights, and leaves our ability to eradicate disease to a frightening variable:
Garrett: Does the President think this should be federally mandated, vaccines across the country for this set and other sets of childhood diseases?
Earnest: Well, Major, we do have a tradition and there’s a long track record in this country of these kinds of health issues being administered by state and local officials. This is something that we went through at the end of last year related to Ebola, that the monitoring that was in place was something that was strongly recommended by federal public health officials at the CDC, but ultimately, we are relying on state and local partners to carry out that monitor.
And that is a good indication of how federal public health officials and state and local public health officials work together; that the federal government can be relied upon for good scientific advice -- there’s a whole wealth of institutional knowledge that's contained at the CDC, that there are significant resources that are devoted by the federal government to doing the kind of research at the NIH and other places where we can make sure that the best scientific advice that is known to man can be made available to state and local public health officials -- and ultimately that's the way that this system has operated for generations.
Garrett: Should it change?
Earnest: Well, what I also know is true is that there is a lot of case law around this, and this is something that people have challenged I think on both sides of this issue. And as I mentioned earlier, I did have a chance to speak to the President about this issue shortly before the briefing, and he was clear that we don't need a new law, we need people to exercise common sense.
Garrett: The federal government does not need to establish a mandate for vaccines, just recommendations and advice to states and parents on the facts?
Earnest: I think what the President is saying is we shouldn’t have to, that the science is clear. And it is irresponsible for people to not get their children vaccinated -- not only because it puts their children at risk of getting the measles, it also puts at risk other children in their community, if it’s infants who are too young to get the vaccine, or children who have compromised immune systems that they can't get the vaccine. So people need to take responsibility -- not just for their kids, but for the kids in their community.
If that "we don't need a new law" thing sounds familiar, it's because that's what Speaker of the House John Boehner said a couple of hours earlier, and if "common sense" doesn't sound familiar, it's because the dumbasses who are not vaccinating their kids and are sharing once-eradicated diseases like they were posting them on their Facebook walls don't have any. Common sense, that is. That's why people are asking if we need stronger laws, because the ones we have aren't working, and we'd like to get this fixed before they bring smallpox back.
This isn't the first time that Obama has fallen back on the states' rights dodge, and sometimes, it's wise for him to sidestep the politics of an issue like this, if only so that his lunatic opponents don't just reflexively fight him on it. So, fine, maybe we're better off without Obama pushing for a federal vaccine law, but someone needs to, Hillary Clinton. Or Marco Rubio. Or anyone who wants to get on the right side of an issue that should be a no-fucking-brainer, As Dennis Miller used to say back when he was still funny, "Folks, the states can't pave fuckin' roads."