Republicans have found a new boogeyman in the battle for the House: the nation’s top public health agency.
As Republicans head back to their districts for the August recess, they are hammering the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and seizing on the backlash to new mask and vaccine mandates – part of a GOP-wide effort to use the fears and frustrations of Americans worried about another round of school closures and lockdowns as cudgels against their Democratic opponents.
Those were the dominant themes of a House GOP news conference right before the summer break, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, continued to beat that drum on Tuesday, firing off a new letter to the Capitol physician and saying in a separate statement that President Joe Biden has “threatened a return to lockdowns and government-mandated restrictions for American citizens.”
Meanwhile, “Fire Fauci” – a reference to infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci – has become a new rallying cry on the right, with some campaigns even selling anti-Fauci merchandise. And Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and doctor, recently went on a tirade against the CDC and brazenly called on the public to defy health protocols.
“Americans no longer trust Dr. Fauci or the CDC. We clearly need new leadership,” said Rep. Warren Davidson, an Ohio Republican who’s a member of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus. “Americans should be trusted to provide informed consent for vaccines. Americans should make their own personal decisions about masks. They’re sick of others imposing their will on them.”
Republicans feel like they have a potent political message following an agonizing and exhausting stretch of pandemic life, and are making the case to voters that things would be different if they’re in power. Plus, whacking Biden’s handling of the deadly virus is a way for the GOP to dent an area where the President had received strong marks at the beginning of his presidency.
“There’s practically no one in America who isn’t tired and frustrated with wearing masks,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye. “For Republicans, they very clearly see something that they can tap into here.”
But turning the CDC into a punching bag – and villainizing scientists – is also an irresponsible and risky strategy, as the Delta variant continues to ravage communities with low vaccination rates and pediatric hospitalizations are on the rise, just as kids return to school. While the GOP is harping on the reemergence of safety measures, it is largely ignoring that the country likely wouldn’t be in this position if it weren’t for some of the anti-vaccine sentiment being pushed by party members.
And that rhetoric has continued to spread inside the GOP: Freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the controversial Georgia Republican, was once again suspended from Twitter on Tuesday for peddling misinformation about the vaccine, while Paul was suspended from YouTube for claiming that masks are ineffective in fighting Covid-19.
“If you’re not interested in following the public health guidelines to protect the lives of people in your state, to give parents some comfort as they’re sending their kids to school, then get out of the way and let public officials, let local officials, do their job to keep students safe,” press secretary Jen Psaki said at Tuesday’s White House briefing.
Republicans rally around resistance to mandates
With coronavirus cases back on the rise and just over half of the US population fully vaccinated, fears have started to grow about the potential for new – and even more deadly – variants. As a result, mask mandates have started to return around the country, while a number of governments, schools and businesses have begun to require employees and patrons to get the vaccine.
But the renewed safety protocols have spurred a fierce backlash on the right. Several red states have imposed bans on mask mandates in schools – including GOP Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential contender who threatened to withhold the salaries of school officials who defy his no-mask policy. And in Washington, Republicans from both ends of the Capitol have introduced a stack of bills to prohibit federal vaccine passports, repeal mask mandates and eliminate Fauci’s salary. Senate Republicans on Tuesday proposed amendments to the Democrats’ budget resolution that would bar schools from mandating vaccines and masks, though the provisions would be nonbinding even if they were adopted, making them purely a messaging exercise.
The GOP’s crusade against masks has gone even further than drafting legislation. Dozens of Republicans recently refused to wear facial coverings on the House floor. And a trio of GOP lawmakers filed a new lawsuit against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the chamber’s mask fines – including Rep. Ralph Norman, a South Carolina Republican who has refused to mask up inside the Capitol and recently contracted a breakthrough case of Covid.
Republicans have broadly framed the health requirements as infringing on American liberties and freedoms. They’ve also accused Biden and the CDC of shifting the goalposts, arguing that requiring vaccinated individuals to now wear masks will actually discourage people from getting inoculated against the virus. And the GOP has been quick to highlight what it sees as examples of Democratic hypocrisy when it comes to the rules – including former President Barack Obama’s outdoor birthday bash last weekend.
“The CDC has become a political arm of the administration. It wants to control every element of our life,” McCarthy said at the pre-recess news conference, which was designed to solidify their midterm message and get Republicans on the same page. “We have a President in the White House and Democrats in Congress that are completely oblivious to the frustration the American people are feeling at this moment.”
Democrats and health experts push back on ‘terrible’ GOP message
For their part, Democrats have empathized with the frustrations of many Americans and acknowledged that the guidance has evolved as the data has changed. But they have also said it’s Republicans who bear the responsibility for the country’s inability to stomp out the virus once and for all, which would eliminate the need for mask wearing.
“I just went to an outdoor event that required masks,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, tweeted on Tuesday. “Why?! Because those guys in the Radical Republican Party keep spinning vaccine lies and risking all our lives. We are backsliding and there’s a straight line of responsibility to Kevin McCarthy’s GOP.”
Public experts, meanwhile, have warned that the anti-CDC messaging coming from the GOP is dangerous. While Republicans this summer started to shift their tone on encouraging voters to get the vaccine, the party has dug in hard when it comes to opposing mandates for shots and masks.
“The impact is terrible. I want freedom too, but I also believe in public health,” Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean at Emory School of Medicine, said on CNN. “I’m particularly offended by Sen. Rand Paul saying that we shouldn’t listen to the CDC. … We have the best public health agency in the world and we are lucky to have CDC working 24/7 to get us over this outbreak.”
Even some in the GOP have pushed back on their party’s resistance to pandemic protocols. That includes Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy, a doctor who represents Louisiana, a state that is being hit particularly hard by the Delta variant.
“Whenever politicians mess with public health, usually it doesn’t work out for public health, and ultimately it doesn’t work out for the politician, because public health suffers and the American people want public health,” Cassidy told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday. “When it comes to local conditions, if my hospital’s full, vaccination rate is low and infection rate is going crazy, we should allow local officials to make those decisions best for their communities.”