House GOP holdouts muddle Trump vaccine message

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Former President Trump this week took the remarkable step of encouraging everyone in the country – even his reluctant followers – to get a COVID-19 vaccine. But the message has been slow to reach House Republicans.

© Getty Images, Greg Nash House GOP holdouts muddle Trump vaccine message

As the vaccines become more readily available – and Trump has joined the nation’s health experts in pressing the public to get one as soon as they’re eligible – there’s a different message coming from a number of conservatives in the lower chamber, who are wary of encroaching on the freedom of individuals to make their own health decisions.

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“It’s the individual’s choice, whatever they want to do,” said Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.). “And if they want to do it, it’s their business; if they don’t, it’s their business. … It shouldn’t be a witch-hunt.”

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus, echoed that sentiment on Wednesday, comparing the current push for vaccines to the security fence that surrounds the Capitol following the deadly attack of Jan. 6. Both are unnecessary precautions in the effort to reopen the Capitol complex safely, Biggs said, and both are a part of the Democrats’ efforts to exert “control” over the public at large.

“I don’t think it is an important part of that reopening … Vaccinations [are] not part of the deal, because it’s control, that’s what it is. When you have the lion’s share of people who already have been vaccinated, that is no longer the issue,” Biggs said, referring to the roughly 75 percent of House lawmakers who have been vaccinated to date.

That message runs counter to the one delivered by Trump Tuesday night, when he appeared on Fox News for a lengthy interview that included a strong endorsement of universal vaccinations.

“I would recommend it to a lot of people that don’t want to get it. And a lot of those people voted for me, frankly,” Trump said.

“We have our freedoms, and we have to live by that. And I agree with that also,” Trump continued. “But it’s a great vaccine. It’s a safe vaccine. And it’s something that works.”

Trump had made similar comments last month during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where he told attendees, as an aside, to “get your shot.” But the Fox interview represented his most extensive remarks on the topic since the vaccines first became available in December. And they came as people in Trump’s orbit were pressuring him to get more vocal in urging his followers to get vaccinated, lawmakers said.

“I’m very pleased he told people to take the vaccine,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).

“I agree with President Trump. I think everybody should take the vaccine,” added Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the Administration Committee.

Yet not all Republicans are sounding the same tune, as some are expressing concern that even the act of lending vaccine advice oversteps their role as members of Congress. Asked about Trump’s recommendation, Biggs again argued the importance of individual choice.

“If … former President Trump believes that that’s the case, and he’s made that statement,” Biggs said. “And that’s up to the individual. As long as we still live in a free country, then we can make those individual decisions.”

That tone has been panned by Democrats, who have been virtually unanimous in calling for blanket vaccines and want Republicans to join them.

“They should lead by example, and we should have a 100 percent vaccination rate,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), a physician.

In a sense, the emphasis on choice and freedom is a straw-man argument: the vaccines are not mandatory and no one in Congress or the White House has suggested they should be. But there are clear divisions between the parties – and also internally, between Republicans – in how the vaccine is being messaged to the public.

The issue is forcing Republicans to walk a tightrope between praising vaccines to promote a return to societal normalcy, and emphasizing personal choice as a governing mantra of traditional conservatism.

“Talk to your physician [and] take their recommendation. But in the end it’s your choice,” said Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.), an anesthesiologist.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), a dentist, said he is urging friends and constituents to get a vaccine. But he himself will not be taking the vaccine anytime soon since he believes he is protected with antibodies from having contracted COVID-19 after attending CPAC in March 2020.

Gosar also emphasized that getting vaccinated is an individual decision.

“I’ve been a big staunch supporter of vaccines but I’m also a staunch supporter of personal choice and free will. Being from the dental field, there are a number of people who have religious exemptions,” Gosar said Wednesday.

“I have antibodies right now so I will be the last one. I want everybody else to get it. I want to make sure the people who need it can get it,” he added. “At this point in time there is a finite resource, and we need to get it out to everyone.”

Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), a member of GOP leadership who contracted COVID late last year, is a fan of the vaccine, which he said will play an important role in “getting us back to normalcy, to opening the economy and schools.” He plans to get vaccinated in the coming days.

But he, too, has been urging Americans to “do as their conscience dictates.”

“People don’t trust the government and they shouldn’t. It’s in our nature to be skeptical about those things,” said Johnson, the vice chair of the House GOP’s messaging operation. “I’ve been satisfied with the science that we’ve been shown as members that the vaccine is safe and apparently effective. I think, for me, the benefit outweighs the risk.

“That may not be true for everyone and everyone should do whatever they want. I don’t think the government should mandate it,” he added. “But for Trump to agree with the recommendation I think is a positive thing.”

The vaccine debate is raging as recent opinion surveys are revealing a stark divide between Democrats and Republicans on the question of whether they intend to get inoculated. A new NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll, for instance, found that 47 percent of 2020 Trump voters intend for forgo a COVID vaccine, versus 10 percent of Biden voters.

“This is very partisan,” said Ruiz, who attributed the discrepancy to the many months that Trump had downplayed the severity of the coronavirus threat.

“At every opportunity he had to downplay the virus, he did,” Ruiz said. “And it’s very difficult now to change behavior – especially when it’s constantly being reinforced by the right-wing media and QAnon conspiracy theorists.”

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