Biden vaccine mandate puts McConnell, GOP leaders in a tough spot

Republican leaders in Congress are trying to figure out how to play the politics of President Biden’s sweeping new COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which has majority support in recent polls but has sparked a revolt from GOP governors and the base of the party. 

Biden’s aggressive move puts a spotlight on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a childhood polio survivor who has been outspoken in urging fellow Republicans to get vaccinated against COVID-19. 

McConnell’s advocacy for the vaccine sets him apart from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has done little to crack down on House GOP colleagues who spread misinformation about vaccines. 

McConnell has kept a relatively low profile on Biden’s vaccine mandate, in contrast to Republican governors such as Nebraska’s Pete Ricketts, who are crusading against it as a defining constitutional issue. 

While McConnell isn’t about to do battle with fellow Republicans over the controversial federal mandate, he appears more sensitive than other GOP leaders to how the party is viewed by swing voters — especially women and suburban voters, who fueled Democratic victories in the 2018 and 2020 elections. 

He declined to comment Monday afternoon when asked about Biden’s vaccine mandate. 

McCarthy, his House counterpart, struck a much different tone on Sunday when he lashed out against Biden’s order by tweeting: “NO VACCINE MANDATES.” 

Democrats pounced on McCarthy’s declaration, accusing him and other Republican officials who have balked at vaccine and mask mandates of putting lives at risk.

“It is a crisis situation in many of these areas where these Republican governors are making these totally irresponsible statements. If we don’t roll up our sleeves, literally, and get the vaccine in more arms across America, this pandemic will get worse instead of better,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Monday. 

Polls show a majority of Americans favor requiring vaccinations for office workers returning to the workplace, but the breakdown of opinion falls largely along party lines. 

A CNN-SSRS poll conducted from Aug. 3 to Sept. 7 showed that 54 percent of Americans support a vaccine mandate for office workers. While 81 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of independents support the idea, 72 percent of Republicans oppose it. 

McConnell seems open to the idea of requiring workers to get vaccinated, though he says it should be up to employers, not the federal government, to enforce. 

“If I were governor, I’d leave the issue of masks and vaccines up to school boards and employers,” he told The Owensboro Times last month. 

“I don’t think it’s the business of government, certainly not the federal government,” he said. 

Al Cross, a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky and a longtime commentator on Kentucky politics, said McConnell isn’t a fan of federal mandates but that he’s also sensitive to criticisms that the GOP is a “retrograde” party in the thrall of former President Trump and stubbornly deaf to science. 

“It’s easy to separate the urging to get a vaccine from a mandate to get a vaccine. That seems to be where most Republicans are drawing the line, and he’s unlikely to get out in front of his caucus on this one,” he said. 

“McConnell and the Republicans realize they have an increasingly libertarian party, and opposing vaccine mandates would be right in line with that,” he added. 

At the same time, McConnell is cognizant of his party’s need to be better with female voters, especially in the suburbs, and the CNN poll showed that 55 percent of women favor a vaccine mandate for workers returning to the office. 

“There is definitely a long-term political risk for Republicans being seen as the retrograde party, the party that does not respect science, and I think McConnell is sensitive to that,” Cross said. “I would expect him to come out [Tuesday] and say, ‘I’m 100 percent for vaccines, I think everybody ought to get a vaccine, but I don’t think the government ought to be ordering you to get one.’” 

McConnell has been less outspoken than other GOP leaders, such as Ricketts, who last week accused Biden of issuing a Soviet-style diktat with his vaccine mandate. 

“He thinks we live in the Soviet Union and the hypocrisy of this is just unbelievable,” Ricketts said.

But that has opened the GOP governor to criticism. 

“Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace pressed Ricketts over the weekend on why the COVID-19 vaccine is so objectionable when kids in his state are required to be vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps and rubella. 

Democrats have echoed similar criticisms.

Former Hillary Clinton aide Jesse Ferguson accused McCarthy and other GOP leaders who oppose vaccine mandates of supporting the spread of smallpox and polio, in addition to COVID-19. 

Some Republican strategists see Biden’s vaccine mandate as good politics for Democrats, even though it’s unlikely to substantially increase vaccination rates. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that only 18 percent of unvaccinated people would get a vaccine if their employer required it.

 “As a political matter, Biden is likely to find some running room here because most people have probably already gotten a shot and so they probably don’t mind that others would need to get one as well, but I think the real question is will a mandate cause an unvaccinated person to [get the shot], and I think it’s unlikely to be persuasive,” said Scott Jennings, a Kentucky-based GOP strategist who has advised McConnell’s past campaigns. 

Jennings said Biden likely knows this but thinks “there’s more politically to gain from doing the mandate.” 

“My suspicion is he’s going to find some support for it. All the Democrats will be for it. Some Republicans will be for it as a polling matter, especially, I would think, senior citizens. And my guess is independents are probably tilting in this direction,” he added. 

But other Republican strategists think opposing Biden’s vaccine mandate will be a winning issue for GOP officeholders and candidates. 

“This is a big winning issue for Republicans because I don’t think many people think that this is constitutional. There aren’t many people who make the case that OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] has the power to do this unilaterally,” said Brian Darling, a former Senate aide and GOP strategist. 

“You’re seeing a big backlash, you’re seeing a lot of conservatives who are upset about it — even people who are vaccinated,” he added. “I’m uncomfortable with the federal government forcing people to get shots if they’re not comfortable with it. 

“It’s a tough issue, but it’s a winning issue for Republicans if they play it right because the American people don’t like mandates.” 

Via The Hill