Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has been trying to walk the same line with the anti-vaccine movement that he has with Donald Trump. He recognizes an important constituency within his party that alienates a majority of the public and has tried to draw its energy behind him without tying himself to it so publicly that he poisons his political viability.
The trick has allowed DeSantis to win over rabid Trump cultist anti-vaxxers even as pro-vaccine conservatives insist Desantis is on their side. National Review’s Dan McLaughlin describes DeSantis as “a vocal proponent of the COVID vaccines” who merely has a principled belief “that adults are free to make their own choices and take the consequences.” His colleague Charles C.W. Cooke sarcastically refers to “that noted anti-vaccination extremist, Ron DeSantis.”
After months of carefully walking this balance beam, DeSantis has fallen off. He has thrown in fully with the anti-vaxxers, and whatever thin plausible deniability he tried to maintain is gone.
You can see DeSantis’s progression from anti-anti-anti-vaxxer to simple anti-vaxxer by observing the increasingly strident tone and content of his stances. DeSantis has:
– blocked cruise lines from requiring their customers to be vaccinated. This stance is both a violation of traditional conservative deference to property rights (why should a business owner be forced to permit onto his property infected customers he doesn’t wish to serve?) and a practical economic threat to an important Florida industry (who in their right mind would set foot on a cruise ship that didn’t require everybody to have a vaccine?)
– blocked cities from requiring that their public employees get a vaccine. DeSantis threatened to impose a $5,000 fine per infraction on any Florida town that imposed a vaccine mandate on its city employees
– refused to participate in a federal plan to give $100 checks to everybody who got a vaccine
– appeared at a rally beside an anti-vaxxer who told the audience the vaccine “changes your RNA” and then declined to contradict this absurd claim when his turn came to speak
– and appointed a state surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, who has repeatedly questioned vaccine safety.
Last week, DeSantis appeared at a rally with Ladapo, who ranted against vaccine safety. “People being forced to put something in their bodies that we don’t know all there is to know about yet. No matter what people on TV tell you, it’s not true. We’re going to learn more about the safety of these vaccines. We’re finding that some of these vaccines, the protection from infection is less than 40 percent,” he said, “We’re going to learn more about the safety of these vaccines, right?”
Ladapo urged his audience to “stick with their intuition and their sensibilities.” Intuition! This is from the state’s leading public-health authority, more than a century after the scientific method replaced intuition as the basis for medical practices.
During one of his regular fawning Fox News interviews Sunday, DeSantis urged police officers who have lost their jobs in other states for refusing to take a vaccine to come to Florida. He even promised $5,000 to help them relocate. If Florida has a desperate need for police officers, why does it need to single out anti-vaxx cops for recruitment? Why do vaxx refusers merit special payments, when DeSantis has refused to allow payments to citizens who get a jab?
There is no principled explanation for all these decisions other than a belief that vaccine skeptics are a special category of citizen that deserves special treatment and legal protection. DeSantis is giving vaccine skeptics platforms they can use to encourage that sentiment.
Pro-vaccine Republicans are probably going to continue pretending all these moves add up to something other than the obvious reality. But DeSantis has clearly decided the anti-vaccine movement is his constituency. And if his actions cause Floridians to die, it’s a price he’s willing to pay to advance his political career.