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COVID Derangement Is Working Out Just Fine for the GOP

Joe Biden didn't want a vaccination culture war. He got one anyway. And he's losing it.
February 2, 2022
COVID Derangement Is Working Out Just Fine for the GOP
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 13: People against vaccinating for the COVID-19 virus protest in front of Pfizer world headquarters on November 13, 2021 in New York City. A U.S. Circuit Court granted an emergency stay to temporarily stop the Biden administration's vaccine requirement for businesses with 100 or more workers as many feel it is an unlawful overreach. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

The Republican treatment for coronavirus is quite simple. You mix doubt with denial, look past the lost lives and then wait. When the infection spreads, the virus replicates and mutates, and new variants jolt the economy, you then blame President Joe Biden.

For nearly two years we have witnessed an entire cohort of Americans reject the social compact and discard the welfare of others, including their own loved ones. In the name of liberty they have proudly protected the rights of Americans to reject vaccines, refuse masks, spread the virus, demand expensive therapeutics, claim ICU beds, clog up hospitals, and gum up the economy.

The virus champions in the GOP know that their unvaccinated supporters are 17 times more likely to be hospitalized and 20 times more likely to die from COVID. You will not hear them lament that more than 10,000 mostly unvaccinated Americans are dying each week as we approach the loss of 900,000 American lives. On this they are largely silent. Mass death is another casualty of the long culture war; the cost of doing business in today’s Republican party.

This attitude is, itself, a sickness. Michael Gerson calls it “GOP political necromania,” and describes it as “an effort by populists to prove that their MAGA commitments outweigh all common sense, public responsibility and basic humanity.”

When Gerson puts it like that, it sure sounds bad. Except that the truth is that this strategy is working quite well. Except for their dead voters, friends, and family members—as a purely political matter—this whole COVID radicalism thing is going great for Republicans.

This election year began ominously for President Biden, with the omicron wave causing sick outs and disruptions that canceled air travel and put even more strain on the supply chain. Americans of all political stripes started complaining that they were “done with COVID.”

Meanwhile Republicans have been pounding Biden for the pandemic. Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel tweets that Biden “failed” or “lied” in promising to contain the virus. She is, she notes, particularly concerned about “hospitals scrambling.” 

You would think that McDaniel was being a COVID hawk, but she’s found a trick for having it both ways. She blames Biden for “hospitals scrambling” but says nothing about the parade of unvaccinated COVID patients. Instead, she says that the problem is that Biden “didn’t buy enough treatments” and that his vaccine mandates “made staffing shortages worse.” One particularly unironic tweet noted all the deaths that have occurred on Biden’s watch: “A year into his term, daily COVID cases have reached new records, and tragically more people have died after Biden took office than before, even though he was handed a vaccine.”

About that vaccine: Even Trump’s new, belated effort to market the vaccine he now wants to take credit for has smashed against the wall of hardened anti-vax sentiment that he started and that has since been stoked by Trump copycats such as Ron DeSantis and Ron Johnson and MAGA media voices such as Tucker Carlson and Candace Owens. Though Trump could have saved untold thousands of lives had he championed the vaccine in December of 2020, that dewormed horse has left the barn, and now his audience won’t permit it. The vaccine has now been booed right out of Trump’s routine— he dared not mention it at his recent rallies in Arizona or Texas.

Any time Ronna McDaniel wants to start promoting COVID vaccination it would be welcomed. But she knows better. Like other Republicans, she’s figured out a way to beat up on Biden without alienating the vaccine refuseniks. And she had to figure this out in order to remain popular with the anti-vaxxers—because they now represent a significant portion of the Republican coalition.

The real pioneer in this field is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is himself vaccinated and who early on encouraged his constituents to get vaccinated—but who has since realized that any Republican with ambition needs to curry favor with the anti-vaxxers.

So he has spent much of the last year being performatively anti-vaccine. He has threatened the salaries of school officials who defy his ban on mask mandates. He intentionally let nearly a million stockpiled home tests expire. He battled Norwegian cruise lines in court to stop them from requiring proof of vaccination from their customers. And, most absurdly, he now refuses to say whether he received a COVID booster shot. The real-world fruits of DeSantis’s governance is that 65,000 Floridians have been killed by COVID.

Instead of championing the cheap, safe, and effective vaccines that could have saved their lives, DeSantis has pushed therapeutics, such as monoclonal antibodies. DeSantis has been so invested in treatment that even while he was suing private businesses to prevent them from making their own judgements about vaccines, he was propping up mobile units distributing Regeneron.

Last week the FDA withdrew the emergency use authorization for monoclonal antibodies because they are not effective against the omicron variant that make up 99.9 percent of new covid cases. This was, as a political matter, a triumph for DeSantis. He threatened to sue the FDA. His press secretary greeted the news by retweeting Mike Cernovich declaring “the FDA is trying to make it so the people in Florida die of COVID. They’ll kill people to harm Republicans.”

This is bonkers on many levels—particularly since the company that make these treatments concurred with the government’s finding. (When is the last time you saw a pharmaceutical company giving up free money without a very good reason) But it’s not really about treating sick people so much as fighting the Biden administration. DeSantis, like most higher ups on Planet MAGA, is confident his supporters either don’t care that the antibodies don’t work against the variant killing people now, or are too stupid to know that they’re ineffective.

And as always, projection is the sincerest form of Trumpism: It is Republicans—very much including Ron DeSantis—who are happy to sacrifice the lives of hundreds of thousands of their own voters for the sake of a culture war they can exploit.

Rand Paul isn’t from Florida, but couldn’t let the FDA monoclonal antibody decision go to waste. So he jumped on OAN to accuse the government of wanting to kill what he, somewhat incongruously, admitted were “too many” sick people.

“Too many deplorables, too many Republicans, too many conservatives are getting sick, and so their way to punish us is by not sending treatments and I think it’s abominable,” Paul said.

It’s a particularly brazen formulation that paints Republican voters as both the tragic victims of a terrible disease and the victims of a Democratic party that has spent the last year trying scheme after scheme to prevent them from getting sick.

You might think that some voters, somewhere, might notice that it’s the Republicans who have tried to suppress vaccine adoption. That it’s the Republicans who have accommodated the craziest, most pathological claims about vaccines. That it’s the Republicans who have affirmatively been contributing to the deaths of people who listen to them.

But you would be wrong. Republicans have paid no price for any of this. They come up with one nutty rant after another. They fundraise off of them. And they ignore their dead pawns, like Robert LaMay.

You may remember LaMay from his brush with fame this past summer. A Washington State Trooper, he lost his job because he refused to get vaccinated. He made a video telling Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to “kiss my ass” which went so viral that he was summoned onto multiple Fox shows to perform for the MAGA masses.

Last week, Robert LaMay died. From COVID. He was 50 years old.

And somehow it’s Joe Biden who has seen his approval rating tank while Republicans are poised to take both the House and the Senate.

In the face of this madness Biden and the Democrats have been utterly befuddled. Voters are holding them responsible for controlling the virus, but are allowing Republicans to set the terms of the culture war that has allowed the virus to persist.

Biden has not played perfect baseball. There was no excuse for letting the testing debacle persist a year into his term. And despite the administration spending time and resources to quietly reach out through local community leaders and doctors to persuade the vaccine-hesitant, they were not prepared for the anti-vax blockade that materialized.

But Biden has also largely pulled his punches. Facing coordinated, sustained opposition to mitigation tools and strategies, Biden had two choices:

  1. Go to battle against COVID radicalism and be criticized for being partisan.
  2. Dodge the culture war, try to unite the country, and hope for the best.

He chose initially chose Door #2 and only recently found himself backed into trying Door #1. Yet it’s been too little, too late. By the time Biden expressed frustration at the unvaccinated and Republican leaders who sow doubt about vaccines, Republican voters had turned being anti-vax into a cause and everyone else had simply checked out of the pandemic due to sheer exhaustion.

A lengthy examination of Biden’s handling of the pandemic in the New York Times notes he “tiptoed around an organized Republicans revolt over masks, mandates, vaccines passports, and even the vaccine itself, as he worried that pushing certain containment measures would only worsen an already intractable cultural and political divide in the country.”

Biden was even spooked by DeSantis himself. Vaccine passports were under consideration at the CDC and other agencies in the spring but after silence from the White House the working group was dismantled because “Biden and his team were wary of Republican politicians like Gov. Ron DeSantis, who railed against such passports as ‘completely unacceptable’.”

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster working with the Democratic National Committee and Build Back Together, found in focus groups last summer that vaccinated Republicans were angry at the unvaccinated. This could have been a wedge for Biden to exploit. But by declining to join the culture war, he missed his opportunity as the sentiment was overwhelmed by COVID burnout. The normal, pro-vaccine majority of Americans just wanted to move on.

Lake says that last fall the political class read this exhaustion and frustration as opposition to Biden’s policies—even though polls show his policies are popular and roughly one third of Republicans still support mandates.

“The candidates are too intimidated [because of COVID exhaustion] about articulating the contrasts,” Lake says. “We haven’t laid out the contrast, we have talked a lot about COVID, but we haven’t linked COVID enough to the economy.”

Lake said she recommends that Biden and Democrats hammer to voters that GOP COVID obstruction is imperiling the economy. “Everyone should try to make the connection, stand up and make the argument that the unvaccinated are jeopardizing the economy.”

So here’s a thought: This is the economy of the unvaccinated.

Biden wanted to fight the virus, not Republicans. His failure of imagination was not understanding that Republicans would be happy to push the virus along if it undermined his presidency.

A pandemic Republicans have eagerly prolonged has pummeled Joe Biden’s presidency and he can no longer fight depravity with good will. There are no more marginal vaccine holdouts to be wooed. No more lives of people who just don’t know any better to be saved.

It’s time for Democrats to stop worrying about alienating the unvaccinated and start explaining to the rest of the country how the unvaccinated—and the Republicans who coddle and truckle to them—have screwed the rest of us.

To win this culture war, Biden and the Democrats have to actually fight it.

Otherwise, the Republican COVID radicals are going to clobber them.

A.B. Stoddard

A.B. Stoddard is a columnist at The Bulwark. Previously, she was associate editor and columnist at RealClearPolitics.