By Melanie Zanona, CNN
Even as Republicans move toward being more publicly trusting of the vaccine and personally reject anti-vaccine rhetoric, which McConnell did vocally early on, many in the GOP have still been reluctant to confront one of the biggest culprits of vaccine hesitancy: misinformation being spread by members of their own party.
Even GOP lawmakers with medical degrees, who have been some of the loudest vaccine advocates in their party, have been reluctant to call out their Republican colleagues who are stoking fears about the vaccine or actively discouraging people from getting the shot.
Georgia Rep. Buddy Carter, a pharmacist and member of the House GOP Doctors Caucus, said on CNN that fellow Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene — whose Twitter account was recently suspended for vaccine misinformation — has “every right” to her opinion, even though he disagrees with it.
And Rep. Brian Babin, a Texas member of the Republican doctors group who has been urging people to get vaccinated, told CNN: “I’m not going to call anybody out. This is America.”
“All we can do is encourage” people to get the shot, he added.
Republicans say that while they want more Americans to get vaccinated, they ultimately believe it’s a personal choice and shouldn’t be mandated by the federal government — a clear nod to a Republican base that favors small government — even though the Biden administration is not pushing for such mandates.
The thinking among some Republicans is that the best way to counteract the anti-vaccine sentiment in their party is just to keep preaching about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, instead of picking a head-on fight with the party’s most radical and rambunctious members.
Yet there’s another political reality underpinning the party’s reluctance to forcefully push back on vaccine misinformation spreading inside the GOP: Republicans are uncomfortable with any form of censorship on social media platforms — an idea that is anathema in the party, where “conservative bias” in Big Tech has been a rallying cry in recent years.
“The misinformation needs to be straightened out, but at the same time, we can’t be dictating to these platforms what is misinformation and what is not misinformation,” Carter said.
The mixed vaccine messaging, where Republicans seem to be trying to have it both ways, could make it difficult to convince reluctant Americans to get the shot. Some say the shift in tone on the right is too little, too late, with the deadly new Delta variant ripping through communities and vaccine skeptics staunchly dug in on their opposition, heavily along party lines.
“It’s political malpractice that Republicans have not got on this way, way sooner,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat. “We’re seeing huge outbreaks of the Delta variant, and the correlation is between red Trump districts and spikes.”
The GOP’s messaging shift
Amid an alarming surge in coronavirus cases and troubling new signs on Wall Street, some corners of the GOP have gone to greater lengths to show they’re taking the vaccine more seriously.
Most notably, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana — the second highest-ranking Republican in the chamber — received his first vaccine dose last weekend and appeared on Fox News to talk it up and reach a population of voters who might be most skeptical of the shot. Some parts of Fox News, too, have noticeably moved away from their anti-vaccine rhetoric in recent days.
The House GOP Doctors Caucus, meanwhile, is holding a press conference on vaccines Thursday alongside Scalise and House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik of New York — a move designed to give the event more star power. The group is also planning to recirculate some of the PSAs they cut earlier this year encouraging people to get vaccinated.
“There’s concern about, in many corners of the country, people not doing the vaccine. So we want to address the data that’s out there,” said GOP Rep. Mark Green of Tennessee, a physician. “We want to make sure people get the facts.”
Across the Capitol, McConnell has been one of the most consistent and vocal Republicans on this issue and continues to harp on the importance of vaccines, both back home in Kentucky and in Washington. For McConnell, a polio survivor, the issue is deeply personal.
“Well, I don’t know how it could be any more clearer than I have been. I’ve been saying the same thing about vaccinations all along the way,” McConnell said at his press conference this week. “It is not at all unclear that the way to avoid getting back in the hospital is to get vaccinated. I want to encourage everybody to do that and to ignore all of these other voices that are giving demonstrably bad advice.”
But pro-vaccine Republicans have done little to directly push back on their GOP colleagues who are fueling vaccination fears with misleading information or downplaying the severity of the virus — and misinformation is continuing to run rampant in the party, with the issue threatening to become a new front in the culture wars.
Greene defended her Twitter posts from earlier this week that made false claims about vaccine-related deaths and told CNN that while she doesn’t want anyone to get sick, “unfortunately, we all die of something.” Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican, has referred to health officials trying to get more people vaccinated “needle Nazis” on Twitter. And Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a North Carolina Republican, has said that after the Biden administration knocks on doors to encourage people to take the vaccine, the government will try to take guns and Bibles next.
While some Republicans acknowledge that the spread of disinformation on social media is a problem that is preventing more people from getting the shot, they are also reluctant to publicly condemn their own or call for Big Tech to intervene.
Said one GOP lawmaker, who would only speak anonymously of the fringe members in the GOP conference: “They need to make sure they have their facts straight. … but there are some people who don’t submit to reason.”
And Republicans urging vaccine use have been simultaneously eager to take swipes at Democrats, with the 2022 midterms looming.
Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, a Republican doctor, blamed “partisan statements” from the White House for the nation’s lack of trust in vaccines. Scalise, meanwhile, hailed the shots as “safe, effective and widely available” but then criticized President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris for “questioning the effectiveness of the vaccines” last year when they were still being developed under the Trump administration. At the time, Harris and Biden had said they didn’t trust Trump’s word alone on a potential vaccine, but they did trust the scientists.
And even the vaccine press conference being hosted by the House GOP Doctors Caucus couldn’t help but add another item to its agenda that animates the Republican base: the origins of the coronavirus.
“We have to look at the origins of this thing,” Green said.
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CNN’s Lauren Fox contributed to this report.