The sweeping vaccine mandates President Joe Biden announced Thursday were a signal that the President of the United States is dealing with the nation as it is, rather than the nation as he wished it would be.
Biden had tried the latter tack, coaxing and sometimes pleading with vaccine holdouts for months to do right by themselves and their fellow Americans—to just get the jab, man. When that didn’t work, Biden adjusted and brought the hammer for the both good of the nation and particularly the roughly 75% of Americans who have gotten at least one shot.
As Biden unveiled one of the most sweeping public health initiatives in U.S. history, he embodied the anger of the vaccinated.
“Our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us,” Biden said during his speech from the White House State Dining Room.
Republican governors went on the attack, immediately pledging to sue Biden for government overreach. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, for instance, called Biden’s mandates “an assault on private businesses” and a “power grab.”
Asked about that potential legal challenge on Friday, Biden initially responded with a touch of swagger. “Have at it,” he said, before pausing to offer a more pensive answer. “Look, I am so disappointed that, particularly some of the Republican governors, have been so cavalier with the health of these kids. So cavalier with the health of their communities,” the president lamented. “We’re playing for real here. This isn’t a game.”
This is a fight Republicans are spoiling for. Former GOP Congressman David Jolly said Friday on MSNBC that he had gotten a text following Biden’s national address from a Republican operative asserting that the president “just handed Republicans the House” next year.
Although Republicans will have many advantages next year based on historical trends and their nationwide voter suppression campaign, there’s no empirical evidence to support the notion that running against life-saving mask and vaccine requirements will be their ticket to congressional majorities. In fact, exactly the opposite appears to be true.
A swing-state poll conducted in August by a pro-Biden super PAC found that roughly two-thirds of voters in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin support exactly the type of employer vaccine requirement that is the centerpiece of Biden’s renewed effort to beat back the pandemic.
But perhaps more telling is the fact that the contrast between pro-public health Democrats and anti-science Republicans is proving to be a potent weapon on the campaign trail. In the Democratic stronghold of California, Gov. Gavin Newsom appeared to be in danger of losing next week’s recall election until he seized on illustrating the fringe views of the GOP front-runner to replace him, right-wing radio host Larry Elder.
“When I win I will fight any and all vaccine and mask govt mandates at state and local level,” Elder tweeted earlier this month after San Francisco voted to require proof of vaccination for a range of indoor venues like restaurants and gyms.
That was like catnip for Newsom, who has implemented some of the strictest masking, vaccination, and mitigation strategies in the country throughout the pandemic.
“Californians have been through so much in the past year and a half,” Newsom says in an ad released this week. “Republicans want to take us backwards with this September 14 recall. They’ll eliminate vaccine mandates for health and school workers on day one, threatening school closures and our recovery.” While campaigning with Vice President Kamala Harris, Newsom also warned that Elder would “walk us off that same COVID cliff as Texas and Florida, Tennessee and Alabama and Georgia.”
Newsom’s focus on Elder’s extreme anti-vaccine, anti-mitigation positions has yielded dividends, rousing Democratic voters who appeared to potentially be sleepwalking their way to defeat. Just six weeks ago, a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies survey served as a flashing red light for Newsom, with Democratic voter enthusiasm lagging. Among voters considered most likely to participate in the election, 47% favored Newsom’s recall, while 50% opposed it—a margin far too close for comfort since Newsom must secure a majority of those who vote to retain his office.
On Friday, however, the same polling outfit found Newsom prevailing among the most likely voters 60% — 39%.
The shift isn’t because California voters suddenly have warm fuzzies for Newsom, as the Los Angeles Times notes. It’s because likely voters got focused on the right-wing threat Elder poses. Nearly two-thirds said that a conservative Republican replacing Newsom “would threaten many of the state’s well-established policies on issues like climate change, immigration, healthcare and abortion.” And by nearly 2-1, likely voters disagreed with the charge that Newsom had greatly overstepped his authority with his pandemic policies—a chief complaint of Republicans pushing the recall. In fact, nearly half of likely voters called the state’s pandemic initiatives “about right” while 18% favored even more aggressive actions.
The main lesson here, as The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein notes, is that Newsom’s campaign got laser focused on comparing him to the alternative rather than simply trying to run on the strength of the policies he has implemented as governor.
“Newsom has focused less on selling his accomplishments than on raising alarms that his Republican opponents will exacerbate the coronavirus pandemic by repealing the public-health protections, such as vaccine and mask mandates, that he has imposed to fight it,” writes Brownstein, noting that Newsom’s turnaround could serve as a “template” for Democrats in 2022.
Across the country in Virginia, veteran Democrat Terry McAuliffe is prosecuting a similar gubernatorial campaign against his Republican opponent Glenn Youngkin, whose attempt to run as a pragmatic businessman has been overwhelmed by the fringe politics of the GOP base he needs to win.
A recent McAuliffe ad opens with Youngkin declaring, “President Trump represents so much of why I’m running,” and then links their approach to the pandemic. The ad specifically blasts Youngkin for opposing vaccine mandates for healthcare workers and teachers while also rejecting masking requirements in schools.
Both California and Virginia will provide an early test of what strategies Democrats should employ to safeguard their congressional majorities next year. In both cases, Newsom and McAuliffe have landed on contrasting their leadership with the fringe views of their opponents, often centering on their pandemic policies.
If Newsom makes a decisive comeback this month and McAuliffe prevails in November, Democrats will have a roadmap for maximizing turnout among the Democratic base—arguably the most decisive factor in any midterm cycle.
This week, President Biden made that contrast with Republicans clearer than ever. His bold initiatives to beat back the pandemic will undoubtedly save lives, but they also set up Democrats as the undeniable protectors of public health against a Republican party that is actively sabotaging it in favor of the so-called personal freedoms that endanger the greater good.
As I have been arguing for months, running on accomplishments—no matter how popular they are—won’t be enough for Democrats to prevail next year. Making the campaign a measure of how much Democrats delivered won’t be nearly as motivating to base voters as pounding home the mortal threat that Republicans pose to society.