On September 9, President Biden formally imposed a workplace vaccine mandate on 2.1 million federal employees and contractors, 17 million employees of facilities receiving Medicare or Medicaid funds, and 80 million people working in firms employing more than 100 people. So about 100 million Americans will soon face a choice between getting vaccinated, submitting to weekly COVID-19 tests, or quitting their jobs.
The Republican reaction was immediate and largely unsurprising. The Republican National Committee and at least four GOP governors (Ron DeSantis of Florida, Brian Kemp of Georgia, Henry McMasters of South Carolina, and Kristi Noem of South Dakota) threatened lawsuits to stop implementation of the mandates. There were calls for non-compliance among some conservative opinion-leaders, and Fox News personalities were beside themselves with fury (“BIDEN DECLARES WAR ON MILLIONS OF AMERICANS” read one prime-time chyron). And one famous Republican U.S. Senate candidate, J.D. Vance of Ohio, called for “mass civil disobedience” if the mandate goes into effect.
Certainly “I’ll see you in court” is a predictable, on-brand reaction from governors who have previously been focused on hunting down and shutting down any effort in their states to require vaccines or masks. And Vance is a desperate man trying to out-MAGA primary opponents who so far are eating his lunch.
Still, there’s an eagerness in both parties to pick up sides and fight over the issue that is reminiscent of the dynamics of intensely emotional culture-war issues like abortion or racial discrimination. A report from Axios’s Mike Allen, provocatively headlined “America’s Civil War of 2021,” quotes a Republican congressional staffer as saying: “Every Republican in the country — especially those running to the right in primaries — is salivating over Joe Biden [igniting] the vax debate.” But Allen also quotes someone “close to Biden” as saying: “Is America divided? Yes. But Biden is uniting the 75% vs. the 25% that is in opposition.”
Polling does show strong partisan polarization on vaccine mandates. An ABC–Washington Post poll released earlier this week found that “roughly 8 in 10 Democrats support vaccine mandates for workers, while more than 6 in 10 Republicans are opposed. Independents are divided nearly down the middle.” Presumably the conservative activists most likely to vote in Republican primaries oppose mandates by a larger margin and will do so with greater intensity after they are whipped up by conservative media and opportunists like Vance. While support for vaccine mandates isn’t anything like the three-to-one margin Allen’s pro-Biden source indicated, public sentiment has shifted since Delta arrived from a modest negative advantage to a modestly positive advantage, with a significant number still undecided.
What mandate proponents are noticing, though, is the emergence of white-hot anger toward the unvaccinated by vaccinated folk who blame them for both the national failure to conquer COVID-19 and their individual peril despite their own preventive measures now that “breakthrough” infections are growing (though they are still rare). One of the people who convinced California governor Gavin Newsom to make Larry Elder’s opposition to vaccination mandates central to his fight against the campaign to recall him put it this way in an interview with Ron Brownstein:
“People are rightfully freaked out at the Delta variant. They are angry at people who refuse to get vaccinated, and extremely angry at leaders who enable anti-vaxxers to endanger everyone else,” says Nathan Click, the spokesperson for the anti-recall campaign. “They see what’s going on in Texas, they see what’s going on in Florida, and they don’t want that happening here.”
Democrats also are aware that the ranks of the fearful and possibly angry vaccinated include a disproportionate percentage of seniors and college-educated people, who are the most likely to vote in non-presidential elections like the California recall or next year’s national midterms. It’s not safe to assume that all vaccinated people will embrace mandates (which is where these predictions of this being a 75-25 winning proposition for Biden come from), but it’s not unreasonable to think that on balance it represents smart politics for a president who’d rather be talking about fighting COVID-19 than about not fighting the Taliban or about Democrats fighting with each other over his domestic agenda.
A major question I have is whether in their rush to show how determined they are to defend the God-given freedom of Americans to infect oneself and others with a lethal disease, Republican pols and opinion leaders are in danger of unleashing some dark and disruptive forces. When Vance and others started talking about “massive civil disobedience” or pledging non-compliance with the mandate, they brought in the rhetoric of the January 6 insurrectionists with whom they may begin to merge in the public consciousness, particularly if you-know-who smells the tear gas in the air and joins the demands for a rebellion. Nothing would help Joe Biden or his party more in the midterms if it becomes not a referendum on the first two years of his presidency but a referendum on those who continue to reject the legitimacy of the current occupant of the White House.