The National Circus: Will the Anti-Science Wing Tear the GOP Apart?

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Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has gotten some flak for his stance on vaccines.Photo: John Locher/AP

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the anti-vaccination debate and the brewing controversy over a GOP congressman’s Downton Abbey–inspired redesign. 

Chris Christie’s comments that parents “need to have some measure of choice” about vaccinating their children set off a backlash so quickly that he had to half-retract them an hour later. Rand Paul, another Republican aiming for the White House, took the opportunity to frame the issue of vaccinations in terms of freedom and personal choicefor a day, at least. With popular opinion hardening on science-based issues like vaccines and climate change, how can GOP candidates speak to primary voters with strong anti-science beliefs without turning off large swaths of voters in the general election?
Except in his own mind and among fat-cat loyalists like the Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, Chris Christie was already a dead presidential candidate walking. So he doesn’t have to worry about how his endorsement of “choice” for vaccinations (but not for reproductive rights), or his previous public-health fiasco, incarcerating a nurse who’d treated Ebola patients, will play out in a national election. He’s done.

Rand Paul, on the other hand, has been a leading Republican contender, and he may have done himself serious political damage even within his own party ranks. The conservative columnist John Podhoretz has called Paul’s musings on vaccinations among “the most irresponsible remarks ever uttered by a major American politician.” The Wall Street Journal ridiculed him in a lead editorial. It should be remembered that Michele Bachmann’s 2012 presidential campaign survived many self-inflicted wounds but didn’t fully crater until she flogged a bogus anecdote promoting a nonexistent link between vaccines and “mental retardation.”

It is true that Democrats and liberals can also be capable of such nonsense. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton paid lip service to the notion of researching the junk science of autism-vaccine links during the 2008 campaign. (John McCain went even further, saying there was “strong evidence” of a connection.) Jon Stewart has had fun this week chronicling the “mindful stupidity” of the vaccination resisters of Marin County. But for the most part, the anti-science forces are on the right — the far right that flexes its power during Republican primaries. It’s the constituency that denies climate change, that believes rape victims can resist pregnancy, and that endorses faith-based interventions in private health decisions. It was Jeb Bush, then governor of Florida, whose intervention into the case of a brain-dead hospital patient, Terri Schiavo, helped turn a family tragedy into a national political football.

As a rule, science and health are not major issues in presidential campaigns, but when a new Times poll finds that even a slim majority of Republicans supports government action against global warming, 2016 may be the 21st-century election that breaks with precedent. 

Earlier this week, BuzzFeed published documents obtained from the Reagan Presidential Library showing that, shortly before Rock Hudson’s 1985 death from AIDS complications, his old Hollywood chum Nancy Reagan denied a request to help him gain entry to a French military hospital that could treat him. Hudson died nine weeks later, bringing awareness of the disease to many Americans for the first time. Considering everything we’ve learned about the Reagan White House, and about the treatment of people with HIV and AIDS in the mid-1980s, is a revelation like this a shock?
We should not be shocked, but I suspect many are. As I wrote in a New York piece three years ago, one of the byproducts of the extraordinary advance of same-sex marriage is that politicians of both parties want to rewrite their history during the dark decades for gay civil rights in America. Chris Geidner’s BuzzFeed piece is essential reading, for it brings back in detail the Reagan White House’s homophobic indifference to the public-health calamity of AIDS — a plague with far more casualties than Disneyland’s measles outbreak. The fact is that it took another two years after Rock Hudson died for Ronald Reagan to give his first speech about AIDS, six years into the epidemic.

Though not at that level of lethality, Bill Clinton’s cynical surrender to homophobic forces, including in his own party, must also be remembered. It was he who gave us the unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act. He has literally tried to write it out of history by omitting it from his 1,008-page presidential memoir, My Life. Among those who voted for DOMA were Harry Reid and Charles Schumer. This shameful past should not be ignored or buried. It is a significant piece of American history that we should be learning from, not forgetting.

When the Republican Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock’s interior designer offered to show a reporter around his Downton Abbey–themed Washington office, it created “a bit of a crisis,” in the flustered words of Schock’s communications director. Schock has become known for his Instagram feed and his eagerness to promote fitness by showing off his abs in shirtless photos. In this case, his staff’s clunky attempts to keep his office under wraps became the story. It’s fair to say that his staff must have figured that reporters would at some point see his office. So why are they running to hide what’s in the open?
I have to say, this is my favorite Washington story of recent memory, and readers are in for a treat if they have not yet seen the photos accompanying the Ben Terris Washington Post article about Schock’s regal Nancy Reagan–red congressional office. As the Moyers & Company writer Michael Winship pointed out in a tweet, there’s a certain amount of hypocrisy in a Republican opponent of PBS funding doing up his office in homage to PBS’s biggest hit. I guess we should be grateful that his décor wasn’t inspired by the garbage cans of Sesame Street. Then again, that would have been cheaper. USA Today has calculated that the taxpayers paid nearly $100,000 for this interior-decorating orgy.

For Democrats, Schock’s all-too-vivid fiscal wastefulness may be a gift that keeps on giving during budget negotiations. And what can he do to stop the story now? Waste more public money on ripping out all those gold sconces? I don’t think so. I propose that he offset the costs by using the office as a for-profit on-site theater. He may not be able to get the rights to Downton Abbey, but he might just land Hello, Dolly!